Former international legal advisor for Nicaragua before the International Court of Justice questions Ortega’s relationship with Putin: “it’s a 180-degree turn, it’s like selling the homeland”
HAVANA TIMES – US lawyer Paul S. Reichler, a member of the Foley Hoag law firm in Washington D.C., has been an international legal advisor to the Government of Nicaragua for more than a decade. He resigned on March 2nd in a letter sent to Daniel Ortega, in which he states reasons of “moral conscience”.
Reichler was also a legal advisor in the lawsuit that Nicaragua won against the US government in the International Court of Justice in The Hague in 1987 and participated as political advisor to Daniel Ortega in the negotiations with the armed opposition that led to the Sapoá peace accords in March 1988 between the government and the Nicaraguan Resistance (Contras).
In his resignation letter, Reichler questioned the state repression against peaceful demonstrations in 2018 that resulted in “hundreds of tragic deaths”. “It is inconceivable to me that the Daniel Ortega whom I proudly served would have destroyed the democracy that he was instrumental in building, and establish a new dictatorship with sham elections, not unlike the one he was instrumental in defeating,” Reichler says.
In this interview with CONFIDENCIAL, the former legal advisor to the Government of Nicaragua also talks about the “murder” of political prisoner Hugo Torres, describes the alignment of the Ortega regime with the Russian invasion of Vladimir Putin in Ukraine as “a 180-degree turn, it is like selling the homeland”, and warns of a totalitarian course that aims to impose “a family dynasty, equal or worse than that of the Somozas”.
On March 2 you sent a letter to Daniel Ortega, resigning from your work as international legal advisor to the Government of Nicaragua. What did your work as a legal advisor entail in recent years?
First, I was part of the team of lawyers defending Nicaragua in its lawsuits before the International Court of Justice in The Hague. In these last years, the cases have been against Costa Rica, which have already finished; and cases against Colombia that are still in progress, and I had the honor of serving as Nicaragua’s lawyer during these cases.
In addition, I have defended Nicaragua in some international arbitrations against foreign investors, specifically arbitrations initiated under the terms of the Cafta treaty. And, finally, I have been counsel for Nicaragua in several court cases, lawsuits before the United States Courts, against the Government of Nicaragua, or against state institutions of the Government. These are the three kinds of cases for which I have served as counsel for the Nicaraguan Government.
The lawsuit against the US in 1986
Does that representation of Nicaragua mean strictly legal work, or does it also have an aspect of lobbying or political representation?
I did lobbying in the 1980s and early 1990s. But, in the last 20 years, all my work has been strictly legal in the international field or before the US Courts, when the Government of Nicaragua has been sued in the United States.
What relevance did your work in the 1986 trial against the United States at the International Court of Justice in The Hague have for you, as a lawyer, and for Nicaragua, in international law?
It is not an exaggeration to say that it is a historic case, one of the most important in the history of international jurisprudence, that Nicaragua brought against the United States. The case began in 1984, and the judgment, final judgment, in favor of Nicaragua, was issued by the Court in June 1986. And for me, then a young lawyer, that case really launched me as a specialist in international law and distinguished me by the association with Nicaragua, defending its sovereignty, its political independence, its territorial integrity against the most powerful country, militarily, in the world.
Nicaragua had the courage and decency, and the commitment to the law to take the United States to the Court and to fight in a civilized manner, despite the bestial behavior of the United States, which tried to destroy the government and replace it with a puppet government.
In your resignation letter, you say that the Daniel Ortega who promoted the defense of international law in 1987, or in 2012 in the trial against Colombia, is not the same person. You said you find it inadmissible that he has violently repressed peaceful demonstrations in 2018, that he has imprisoned dozens of citizens and that he has destroyed democracy, which he contributed to building in Nicaragua in some way, to establish a new dictatorship. What happened? How do you explain this change?
The Daniel Ortega that I knew very well, in the 1980s, that Daniel Ortega not only promoted the sovereignty of Nicaragua and its independence, and the supremacy of law in the international arena; but he also promoted peace because he was the one who authorized negotiations with the armed opposition, the Contra; he took the necessary and difficult decisions to secure a peace agreement with the opposition, which put an end to the war and facilitated democratic elections in the country.
In addition, Daniel Ortega promoted democracy by guaranteeing free elections and respecting the results. It was not only him, obviously, but it was also a popular movement and a party or various political elements, which contributed to the construction of true democracy in Nicaragua.
However, Daniel Ortega was fundamental, indispensable for that transformation, and as one of the leaders of the Sandinista Front he participated in the destruction of the Somoza dictatorship and contributed to the establishment of a democracy in Nicaragua. The election in 1990 was, if not the only time, one of the few times in the history of Nicaragua that a government accepted its defeat in a free election and left power. That is the definition of democracy, and many people deserve credit. But Daniel Ortega definitely deserves his share.
That Daniel Ortega was a real hero. The man today is not the same, I don’t know what happened to that Daniel Ortega; today’s Daniel Ortega is a different person. Daniel Ortega today has destroyed the democracy that he himself had a great part in building. The Daniel Ortega who promoted peace in Nicaragua in the 80s is promoting violence, violent repression against his own people. That is a different person who I do not recognize.
I am not a psychologist, I am a lawyer, I cannot enter the mind, I cannot explain the total change of that person, from a democratic hero to a violent tyrant; a dictator who seeks to establish, not only a dictatorship but a dynasty equal, if not worse, than the family dynasty of the Somozas. It is unbelievable. As a lawyer, I observe and state the facts. I am not a psychologist, what I know is (that), this is another person, a total change.
2018, annulment of elections, and the “assasination” of Hugo Torres
But some of the facts that you question in this resignation letter such as the massacres, the suppression of the opposition and freedoms, happened almost four years ago when this authoritarian drift and repression began in 2018. Why didn’t you resign at that time, and you do it now four years later?
That’s a good question. Resigning as Nicaragua’s lawyer, ending my relationship with Nicaragua, with the Government of Nicaragua, has been a very difficult thing for me, because of the love I have for the country, the honor I have received for acting as its defense lawyer before international forums, it is a very serious thing for me. My relationship with Nicaragua has defined, not only my professional career but my life, so for me to break that relationship is a very serious thing.
Obviously, I was disgusted by the repression, the violence, the killing of 2018, but at that time I still had hope that a national dialogue, a national agreement, and eventually free elections, with the possibility of a democratic, peaceful transition. And I believe that many Nicaraguans that I admire, even close friends of mine for 40 years still had that hope as well.
Now, with the benefit of hindsight, I see that the definitive course was already determined for 2018, but I did not recognize it at that time, I still had hope, rejecting what was done. I had hope that the situation could be improved through dialogue; and if they started a dialogue, well, they ended it very early, but I continued in my functions as a lawyer without taking the decision to resign at that time.
In the letter, you mention the suppression of the November 7 elections and the imprisonment, not only of the opposition presidential candidates but of more than fifty opposition leaders. Is that the trigger for your decision to break with the Government of Nicaragua?
As I was saying, although I recognized that what happened in 2018 was unacceptable, I maintained some hope of a peaceful solution, of a solution, even a democratic one; and approaching the elections of 2021, for me that was the moment. If the Government was going to take the right path, that is, a democratic society, not only democratic elections, but an open society, with freedom of speech, freedom of the press, with opposition parties, the November 2021 elections presented the opportunity to proceed in a democratic direction.
However, in May and June, some months before, when they started to harass, repress and imprison anyone who tried to be a candidate, or express support for a candidate other than Daniel Ortega, that was the turning point for me, because it was obvious from May, June and, of course afterward, that this Government had no interest in a civic solution, in a dialogue, in a democratic direction.
How did the death of political prisoner and retired General Hugo Torres, which you describe in your letter as an “assasination”, impact your decision?
Yes, I emphasize that it was an assassination because he was imprisoned. Why? Because he spoke his mind about the Government and the political leadership and supported another alternative, a democratic alternative. The treatment, not only of Hugo but of all the others, all the other political prisoners, we see them when they appear before those “courts”, those “judges”, when there is an opportunity to see them, they are skeletons, they have suffered terribly.
It is horrible that just for expressing themselves or daring to express themselves politically, they are imprisoned, but the conditions are so terrible, they are inhuman, and they are all suffering. Hugo paid with his life; it was a murder. But they have all been tortured in the sense of how they have been treated, and this is what the worst dictatorships in the world do. And Nicaragua has become one of those dictatorships. Yes, the case of Hugo Torres, for that reason is emblematic, but if Hugo Torres had survived my decision would have been the same, because this is currently one of the worst dictatorships in the world.
Alignment with Putin: “It’s like selling the homeland”
How does Daniel Ortega’s endorsement of Putin’s invasion of Ukraine affect the image of the Nicaraguan government? He even proclaimed it on the day of the anniversary of General Sandino, who is a symbol of independence and self-determination of the people, and on that day, Ortega made an appearance backing Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.
It is difficult to find the words to describe someone who would support Putin. An unprovoked invasion of a sovereign state, war crimes every day, the bombing of civilian centers, urban centers, hospitals, theaters, schools, colleges. What Putin and his accomplices are doing against a sovereign state that only wants its independence is beastly.
In the ’80s Nicaragua was Ukraine. The invasion was not by the United States directly, but it was through intermediaries supported, armed, financed, directed by the United States, it was an invasion against a sovereign State, and Nicaragua, defended its sovereignty against that invasion by a foreign power and received the applause of the whole world.
And now Nicaragua is siding with Russia, it is a 180-degree turn, it is like supporting the United States in its invasion of Nicaragua in the 80s. A government that had defended international law, the sovereignty of states, independence, the right to choose its own political system free from foreign interference, the Nicaraguan government has abandoned all these principles and taken totally contrary positions. For me it is a reversal, it is like selling the homeland.
How do you assess the consequences of Ortega’s alignment with Putin for the State of Nicaragua, with the invasion of Ukraine? Could the international sanctions against Putin, against the Russian oligarchs, have repercussions to the detriment of Nicaragua?
I think now the focus of the United States, of the countries of Europe, the European Union, of many Latin American countries, is directed at Ukraine, and Nicaragua is not at the center of their focus now. However, this is a defining struggle, and Putin’s allies are definitely going to pay the price eventually, sooner or later they are going to suffer for choosing Putin’s side, the side of the aggressor, the side of the war criminal.
Has Daniel Ortega given any response to your letter of resignation?
In the last few days, Daniel Ortega declared the ambassadors of Colombia and Spain non-grato, expelled the apostolic nuncio, even the delegate of the International Red Cross. Could your resignation as a lawyer, as well as an expert in negotiations, be interpreted as also breaking a bridge, a thread of communication for an eventual negotiation in the Nicaraguan crisis?
I don’t know what role I could have played, and I prefer not to speculate. But I believe that these expulsions demonstrate the intolerance for any contrary opinion, for any questioning, even more. Now there is intolerance of any criticism, from any source, and it doesn’t matter if it is a simple lawyer from the United States, or someone more important like the apostolic nuncio, the ambassador of Spain or Colombia, there is no criticism accepted, and this reflects an aspiration to be a total dictator, a totalitarian state, that is the current course.
The Daniel Ortega of today does not want to hear a single word that can be interpreted as criticism, he has the determination to proceed with his own project to establish himself as an absolute dictator and a family dynasty that can prolong the dictatorship, perhaps another 45 years, like the Somozas. This is the tragedy that Nicaragua is now suffering.
This Wednesday, the denunciation of the Nicaraguan ambassador to the OAS, Arturo McFields, was made known. He said: “I am also speaking on behalf of the public servants of Nicaragua who have no way of expressing themselves”. What impact do you think an ambassador’s statement denouncing Ortega’s dictatorship and appealing to public servants in Nicaragua can have?
It is difficult for me to know, without being in Nicaragua, without having first-hand experience. But what I think is that no government is permanent, no dictator is permanent. We thought the Soviet Union was going to last forever. Many governments that seem strong, really have roots that are not very deep, and the end begins with the first push, with the first winds, these winds may be in the form of words, but you must start somewhere, it begins like that.
And I believe that this resignation of the ambassador to the OAS is important, it required a lot of courage, obviously he is a man of principles, an ethical man who has tried to serve the country, and when Nicaraguans like this begin to denounce the dictatorship, it may be the beginning of the end. That doesn’t mean that the end is coming tomorrow, but his voice, ten other voices, hundreds of others, thousands of others, accumulate, and eventually the weakness of a dictatorship that has no deep roots in the people, is revealed, and eventually falls. But when? Who knows! That may be a start. But Nicaragua has many heroes, that is something I learned during my more than 40 years of service for Nicaragua, it is a country full of heroic people, and they are going to express themselves.