Nicaragua: “Army Chief’s Threats put Journalists at Risk”

Interview with Carlos F. Chamorro

Army General Julio Cesar Aviles, together with his boss, Daniel Ortega, on September 4, 2023. Photo from the Presidency.

“The Army head has neither disputed nor proven false anything in the Confidencial investigation. It’s time to discuss how to get rid of the ‘plug’ on the Army that Aviles is head of.”

By Confidencial

HAVANA TIMES – Despite the Head of the Army’s fierce verbal attack on September 4, raging against the exiled independent journalists, the Nicaraguan Army hasn’t refuted a single line of the investigation that Confidencial published earlier this month[ ]. The investigative article revealed the existence of twenty generals, led by twice-reappointed Army head Julio Cesar Aviles, who have functioned as an “institutional plug” blocking the rise of new leaders within the Armed Forces.

Confidencial director Carlos Fernando Chamorro pointed out that General Aviles “hasn’t disputed anything [in their investigation],” since the information published by the independent media outlet was based on official data and corroborated facts. “Now it’s fitting that we continue investigating and discussing how to pry out that “stopper” in the Army, that’s blocking the development of the military career.

In his speech, Aviles called the independent journalists “parasites and mercenaries of information,” in an echo of Ortega and Murillo’s habitual hate speech. During an interview broadcast on the weekly internet news program Esta Noche, Chamorro said that the General’s words represented threats from the highest level of military power. The interview was transmitted over YouTube, due to the Ortega regime’s censorship.

Chamorro expressed his belief that the General’s outburst reveals he’s “in a campaign to earn points, to earn Ortega’s and Murillo’s loyalty, in order to be reappointed once more to his position in 2025.” He warned that this attack puts any journalist working within Nicaragua or in exile at risk, and also threatens citizens, since its aim is to silence free expression. “What Aviles wants with that message is to put up a stone wall, establish silence, censorship,” The journalist asserted.

What was revealed in the investigation that Confidencial published on September 1st that apparently so bothered General Aviles that it provoked these furious attacks against the press?

It’s a journalistic investigation that tries to dissect how the Nicaraguan Army structure functions, especially the inner circle. The investigation concluded that there are 20 generals, including General Aviles himself, who has now served as Army head for 13 years, with two reappointments. There are also two Major Generals and another 17 Brigadier Generals [in the high command], plus another who was promoted on September 2nd. This group represents an institutional stopper. That is, these 20 generals are blocking the careers and possibilities for military promotion of the colonels, the lieutenant colonels, and other officials, many of whom have had their posts extended merely due to the Nicaraguan President’s or General Aviles’ political convenience. There are also many others who’ve been called upon to retire early. What Confidencial’s investigation uncovers is who’s who in the Army.  And there’s still a lot of investigation left to do, in terms of the consequences of this.

We interviewed Javier Melendez, director of Expediente Abierto [“Open File,” a Central American think tank and research center]. He said: “This must be causing tensions, by distorting the development of a military career.” This investigation is based on data, on facts. Despite the secrecy with which all the Army’s information is managed, we delved into the information contained in the official annual reports of the Army from 2006 to 2021, and then corroborated all the information. In the speech General Aviles pronounced on September 4th, he didn’t dispute a single line of what Confidencial has published. He hasn’t said that there’s anything false there. He says he’s been the object of “smear campaigns,” but he doesn’t say what’s untrue. So, now that it’s confirmed that these are real facts, what we should be discussing is what the consequences are, and how we can pry off that institutional plug which is provoking an abnormality in the institution of the Nicaraguan Army.

Last May, Confidencial published another article: “Los Militares de Ortega” [“Ortega’s military”] that details how Ortega has bought the loyalty of the military leaders. What were the principal findings of this investigation?

That was one in a series of two investigations. The first one [ ] centered on the institutional perks that Daniel Ortega has negotiated with Aviles and the inner Army circle throughout the years of his rule. This translates, among other things, into economic advantages for the institution, and also for its high officials, but not to all the members of the Army. It involves the donation of properties to the Army – 184 parcels totaling over 10,000 acres donated to them by the State. Much of this land isn’t destined for the use of the military institution. Rather, it supports the business operations carried out in great secrecy by the Instituto de Prevision Social Militar [Institute for Socio-Military Welfare]. And all that is supported by information published in the government’s own Gazette.

The other face of this investigation was related to the increase in the Army’s budget during the Ortega presidency – a 381% increase in the Army budget, that today represents 95 million dollars, plus an increase of over 5.000 soldiers. This economic incentive is part of Ortega’s purchase of loyalty, in addition to a counter-reform that dismantled the Military Code that existed. This has also allowed Aviles to remain at his post for what’s now 13 years, although in theory his period is now up in February 2025. That is, behind the political loyalty, there are economic interests. And that interrelationship has to do with the budget, property and with many other perks.

General Aviles spoke of campaigns of lies and slander, but has the Army as an institution at any moment issued an official statement or anything else disputing the findings of Confidencial’s investigations, or those of other independent media?

It has refuted nothing at all, and I believe they can’t do so. The information we based our investigations on are known facts, some from official reports from the Army itself, and others that we’ve researched and corroborated. There are other published investigations – for example from Expediente Abierto, Articulo 66 and other independent media – that are more closely related to the human rights violations in which high Army officials have been involved. These have never been refuted either. So, the discussion that should arise from this outburst, these uncontrolled attacks from the Army head, isn’t just about the hate speech and the threat this implies, but also about the facts.

The lack of movement in the Army’s upper circle is a plug that’s blocking the promotion of dozens of colonels and lieutenant colonels. How many of them are there? Ten years ago, there were 40 colonels to 10 generals. Now there are 20 generals, and given this you can imagine that there are more than 80, maybe over 100 colonels and possibly over 200 lieutenant colonels in an institution that has lost the principle of meritocracy. Meritocracy and respect for the law used to be reflected at the highest command levels, with the Commander in Chief, via the provision that the latter must leave his position in five years, so another could enter. This was in force until Aviles entered and became the head of that stopper. Now there are other major generals and another 18 brigadier generals that form part of the Army’s institutional plug.

Why did General Aviles react in such a furious manner? Well, he’d have to explain it, but the facts are there and I believe they’re irrefutable and need to be discussed. Discussions should delve more deeply into these investigations, because they have consequences – some related to the human rights violations, and some regarding the institutional plug and the economic perks that have arisen from this relationship.

It’s the first time that General Aviles has given a speech in which he was visibly upset and adopted a rhetorical style that seemed more like an echo of Rosario Murillo. How do you interpret that behavior, in the face of the articles about the Army published in the independent media – articles about their complicity with the regime’s corruption and the imposition of a police state in Nicaragua?

That would have to be explained by General Aviles himself. I believe it caused a lot of surprise, not only among observers of the Army’s relations with the government and with society, but surely among the Army officials themselves. The only thing I can deduce is that General Aviles is campaigning for his reappointment. His third term as Army head expires in February 2025, and this speech, as you say, resembles Rosario Murillo or Daniel Ortega when they launch these attacks. His words echo their hate speech, in this case branding journalists, the way they, in other cases, have targeted dissenters.

Aviles is seeking to mimic Ortega and Murillo in order to earn points, win their loyalty, to possibly achieve a reappointment to his post in 2025, before the current Presidential term of Daniel Ortega is over. But, I repeat, it’s really his role to explain to the population the cause of this outburst.

In his speech, Aviles also refers to the international sanctions and swears that he would never head a coup d’etat against President Daniel Ortega. Why did he mention that?

That’s a question we’re all asking. Why is General Aviles saying that he won’t participate in a coup d’etat against Daniel Ortega? Is that maybe a subject of comment among some of the military leaders? I don’t believe that anyone has ever asked General Aviles to attempt a coup d’etat against Daniel Ortega. What was asked and demanded of him and is still being demanded, is that he obey the law, that he comply with what the Constitution and the Law of the Army. And that means that in Nicaragua there can’t be two armies.

An irregular paramilitary army like the one Daniel Ortega created in 2018, and which provoked massacres and human rights violations, can’t exist. That’s what we’ve been complaining of to Mr. Aviles – not for him to carry out a coup d’etat, simply that he comply with the law and disarm the paramilitary force. However, throughout these five years, Aviles has shown himself to be complicit with that paramilitary army that Ortega created politically, and the Army as an institution has been involved in that deviation. I don’t believe that the Army institution and its officials agree with that behavior.  But that’s the underlying theme, in terms of Aviles’ responsibility.

Regarding the sanctions, it’s not true that sanctions have been levied against the Nicaraguan people or against the army. There are sanctions on General Aviles and on two other high Army officers: Major General Bayardo Rodriguez, Chief of Staff; and Modesto Rodriguez, executive director of the Institute for Socio-Military Welfare. Those are three individuals, three high ranking Army officials, who have been the object of individual sanctions.

Pedro Vaca, the OAS Special Rapporteur for Freedom of Expression, has referenced Aviles’ speech, affirming that it ratifies the censorship that exists in Nicaragua. He also rejected the army chief’s stigmatizing of the independent press. What implications does this attack have on journalists within Nicaragua and in exile?

It seems to me extremely serious, given the origin of these attacks. Mr. Aviles isn’t just some propaganda megaphone of the regime because he exercises military leadership. He launched those attacks, those threats and that hate speech before his troops, before all the Army’s military hierarchy, and obviously with the complicity and concordance of Daniel Ortega and Rosario Murillo. That is, he’s issuing a threat from the highest position of military power, with the power of political espionage against us journalists who are in exile, us journalists who have suffered and have confronted political persecution, illegal confiscation, the nullification of our nationality. And on top of all that, Aviles comes and launches an attack that really puts at risk not only the physical integrity of any Nicaraguan journalist within Nicaragua or in exile, but also of any other citizen who defends human rights, anyone who should try to exercise freedom of expression. Because, in the end here, that’s what’s at stake. What Aviles is attempting to do with that message is simply to build a stone wall, establish silence and censorship. And despite that, the independent press continues carrying out these investigations. Confidencial has done so, and many other media outlets as well. All of us in the media, and the journalists in exile, have reacted by reaffirming that we’re going to continue doing journalism.

OAS Special Rapporteur for Freedom of Expression, Pedro Vaca, is right, and it’s important that we recognize the work he’s doing, because [Aviles] mustn’t be allowed to threaten journalism this way with impunity. As Pedro Vaca states, they’re branding us, establishing the justification for actions that tomorrow could lead to anything, from physical elimination to any situation that threatens people’s physical integrity, because the one in a position of power is setting us up as targets. And for that reason, we reject those threats with all our strength. Journalists in exile will continue doing journalism. That’s the one reserve of freedom to break the silence and censorship in Nicaragua. And although General Aviles threatens, we’re going to continue doing journalism.

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