HAVANA TIMES – On May 1st the web magazine Distintas Latitudes published an extensive interview with Zoilamerica Ortega Murillo regarding the student rebellion in Nicaragua.
Daughter of the powerful Vice President Rosario Murillo, Zoilamerica shocked the country in 1998 by accusing her stepfather, Daniel Ortega, of sexual abuse over a 19 year period, beginning when she was 11. In this interview she expresses her optimism about the new awakening of young Nicaraguans who are fed up with what opposition figures call a mirror image of the Somoza dictatorship without Somoza.
For 20 years –since 1998 – Zoilamerica Ortega Murillo, stepdaughter of Nicaragua’s President Daniel Ortega and daughter of the current Vice President Rosario Murillo, has maintained a total distance from what at one time was her family. It was in that year that she made public her denunciation of sexual abuse on the part of her stepfather. Her revelation sent shockwaves through that Central American nation, but the accusation was buried with total impunity in 2002.
Following years of persecution, culminating with the closing of the NGO where she worked (the Center for International Studies) and the expulsion of her partner from the country, Zoilamerica chose to go into exile herself in 2013. She’s lived in Costa Rica ever since. Although she now resides across the border, she remains a social activist who is avidly involved in the complex political situation that her country is currently experiencing.
Since last April 19, the streets of various cities in Nicaragua have filled with protesters. What began as a demonstration against changes to the social security law has now become a movement against the government, one that seeks profound changes in Nicaragua. As Zoilamerica sees it, the absolute impunity that was the outcome of her case against her abuser was the preamble to later collusion between Ortega and Murillo. Their intrigues continued to multiply until they culminated in the level of repression currently playing out in the land of poet Ruben Dario, with a current total of around 40 dead.
Zoilamerica wears her hair long as a sign of protest, declaring that she won’t cut it until there’s justice in her country. During her conversation with Distintas Latitudes she shared her view of the decisive moment that Nicaragua is living, from the perspective of her first-hand knowledge of the personalities of the two highest political figures in the country and her experience as an exile and immigrant to the neighboring country of Costa Rica.
There’ve been irregularities for years in Nicaragua, including in the last elections and the conflicts about the Chinese franchise for a canal. Why do you think the attempt to reform social security suddenly unleashed this wave of protests?
On an internal level, in everyday Nicaragua, people have gone on tolerating the panorama of their country’s destruction, not only with the dismantling of the rule of law that the electoral fraud represented, but also the implementation of a canal project that turned out to be inviable, and a whole series of measures.
In recent weeks, the forest fire in the Indio Maiz biological reserve highlighted a problem where government control of a series of factors was already quite precarious. I should also note that social control has increased over the last five years, causing the NGOs to feel the repression; that pressure had a hand in the closing of the NGO that I directed and in all of the problems of insecurity that brought me into exile. It demonstrates that there’ve been several years of tolerating a very subtle social control. This control has had to do with how the Sandinista Front transformed their local structures into quasi-paramilitary organizations through which people have been spied on. What for many people was seen as a social paralysis on the part of the public [was really] an accumulation of strengths.
I believe that the trigger has been our memory of history. The manner in which the government confronted this protest generated the final evidence for Nicaraguans that we were living a Somocismo [the form of government of former dictator Anastasio Somoza] without Somoza. What’s worse, it was all playing out behind a curtain of deceit, of manipulation, using the most sacred values of a country, like their Christian faith or the values that sustained that segment of the population that was involved in the Sandinista Revolution.
Ortega’s reversal on the social security reforms hasn’t detained the movement. From your perspective, is it possible to negotiate a way out that guarantees the social peace in Nicaragua, considering the personalities and the political power that Daniel Ortega and Rosario Murillo still have?
Three things are basic in this negotiation. First, without the truth and without having all the cards on the table, no negotiation is effective. Where that condition is concerned, we’ve definitely seen a government that has been maneuvering in an absolutely unscrupulous manner during these protests: sending their people to assault private establishments in order to blame it on the students; young protesters who have disappeared; things that we hadn’t seen, in my case since my childhood. No aspect of the truth can possibly be reached that way.
In addition, in a dialogue there’s a fundamental need for trust – to believe that both sides have the will to find a solution for Nicaragua. Currently, we see that the will of the government is to use the negotiation as a way to remain in power under the same conditions, while the kids and many other people are clear that what they want is a dialogue to set up a process of transition.
Finally, for negotiation to function, there must be justice. Processes for peace and dialogue in profoundly divided nations have only yielded results when there are also truth commissions. Even then, there are obstacles, but the only way they’ve gotten results is when society is open to recognizing the responsibilities.
In Nicaragua, at the moment, none of those three conditions are present. I believe, nevertheless, that the Catholic Church and the young people from the 19th of April Movement and other sectors that have agreed to participate have done so because Nicaragua is important to them. And because, confronted with the real threat you’ve noted – of the psychological profile of two people whose arrogance has clearly not let them even act with political rationality – no effort can be spared in trying to find an out.
Perhaps the most complicated element is the framework of authoritarianism that Nicaragua now has: that web that’s been woven to disarticulate all of the State powers, to undermine the rule of law, to commit fraud not only during the elections but in all of the agencies of power. So where do you begin? Where do we begin to recover a country that’s practically been destroyed? And that perhaps, is the principle challenge of a negotiating table.
Can you compare what’s happening in Nicaragua with the protest movements that have erupted in other countries of the region, such as Honduras and Guatemala?
Yes, and also with movements that highlight the fact that people don’t want to accept any more forms of violence.
In the case of Nicaragua, you have to remember one thing that is as relevant as it is dangerous. Nicaragua had a revolution. Nicaragua has had a long tradition of organization, a culture of leadership, a rebellious nature in the best sense of the word. This has been the background to something that many at this moment have found inexplicable: the level of organization of these kids; the emergence of totally new leadership; the fact that they haven’t needed a political party or a traditional social movement to assume the direction of all this. These young people are bringing together the essence of many generations of Nicaraguans, and hence that makes this movement one that gives us hope.
How can this movement end up being so strong in Nicaragua? Because we also come out of a history with a lot of pain. The pain of a betrayed revolution; the pain that comes with accepting our own mistakes, those of the children of that revolution who were unable to create a project of consensus; the pain that it’s caused us to trust and practically turn over our will to messianic leaders. And what’s worse, the pain of so many years in which we invested our best efforts and our histories.
If you listen, in the demonstrations you’re hearing the same slogans that were used against the dictator Somoza. And it’s striking to hear that the sectors that were opposed to the revolution have taken up those slogans, now against Sandinismo that took up arms.
We really need to write a history of Nicaragua that brings together the lessons learned. Because it also hurts to view each other with that fear. I myself recall images, in 1976 or 7, when I was very little, of the fear that I felt at just the sight of one of Somoza’s national guards. But later, I experienced that same fear of the police in Nicaragua, in one of the episodes in which they used the police to clamp down on me. And now, there are these repeated sensations that if we don’t rise above our fear, we face a real threat to annihilate us.
When you speak about the dangers of this movement or its characteristics: are you referring to the possibility of increased violence or an attempt to start a new revolution or armed uprising?
The new revolution has already begun: this is a new revolution. There are no words to describe our profound gratitude towards these young people, on the part of those of us who’ve experienced the horror and the fear. They’re rescuing our consciences, they’re saving us. They’re young kids who could be my sons or daughters, children of the historic combatants, as well as children of people who were in the Counterrevolution [Contras] at one time. But they’re young people who impress you when you hear them speak because they’re rescuing all of us, they’re lifting us out of a kind of sentiment of defeat.
The most wonderful thing is that they’ve reinvented the revolution. For that reason, those of us who have lived through previous stages of our history have to let them lead us, to appreciate the energy, bravery and strength that they have, and the clarity. Maybe that’s one of the things that Nicaragua needs most in this moment – that we not fight over who’s the protagonist. This Nicaragua will unite, will be able to go forward and climb over these obstacles. As has been said, we’re going from the Sandinista revolution to the Nicaraguan revolution, and that, perhaps, will be the deepest transformation.
The Costa Rican government is looking into possibly of receiving Nicaraguans who want to be safe from the violence. How do you see this possibility?
Clearly, Costa Rica has had a long humanitarian tradition. However, on the part of the organizations that work with refugees here, we’ve been noting with concern that the Costa Rican rule of law could find itself seriously strained and without the ability to respond in its full meaning to the reintegration of those who are obligated to seek international protection, as has been proposed in the office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights.
Given the danger, I think that just maintaining that option can save lives. But to me, it’s more important that the states that expel people out of fear or through their failure to fulfill the responsibilities of a state are the ones who need to stop.
It’s funny, because in the era of the dictatorships of the sixties and seventies in Latin America, the military operations they launched were called “clean-up operations”. On the streets of El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras different “clean-up operations” have been tried against people with different sexual preferences. Hate crimes are attempts to “cleanse” our nations of all those things that don’t fit in with an absolute and patriarchal power.
So, in Nicaragua, we’re looking at an attempt at a “clean-up operation” of everything that’s different, of these different voices of the young people who speak with such clarity about what Nicaragua should be and what Nicaragua has stopped being.
Along the same lines: What do you think of the response of the Nicaraguan government to the condemnation expressed by the Costa Rican government? Within this scenario, is it possible to advance towards an improvement in bilateral relations between both countries?
Costa Rica reacted early to this conflict. Perhaps the Sandinista government viewed this as interventionism. I believe that nations can’t use the sovereignty of their leaders to repress the people. It’s not okay to use the principle of sovereignty, so that one state be able to order killings and profess that no one should raise their voices about this.
We know that the issue of migration in Costa Rica requires a total strategy of improvement so that we immigrants have more options and possibilities. But that in no way assigns the Costa Rican government the main responsibility for the reality in Nicaragua; that responsibility lies with the government that has denied us security and social and economic opportunities.
The Catholic Church and the business leaders who had been closest to the government are now separating themselves from that position. To what do you attribute this decision?
First, in its strategy to concentrate power, the government utilized the political practice of dividing and coopting people from all sectors. There’s a web of complicity around this concentration of power: this dictatorship wouldn’t be possible without concessions of legitimacy from sectors of private enterprise, and sectors of the Catholic Church, many of them represented in their inner circles. We’ve seen the Free Trade Zones Corporation backing the government repression due to the benefits from foreign investment that private businesses and sectors of the Catholic Church have received. Hence, they now owe the government their loyalty.
However, I’ve never thought that there was an absolute agreement around this. Right now, the students in the 19th of April movement are making a historic call to all of those sectors to distance themselves. I believe that private enterprise has begun to take some of those steps and I hope they can maintain their decision, because the pressures are many.
The Nicaraguan Center for Human Rights has mentioned that the physical integrity of even the bishops involved in these dialogues could be in danger. As such, we’re faced with a highly dangerous scenario.
Do you consider having any type of participation in the political moment your country is living?
Since 1998 when I made my accusations, I have maintained a complete distance from the Ortega Murillo family. From that moment on, I felt that sexual abuse comprised only the initial symptom that would later be transformed into the absolute impunity of Daniel Ortega, and after that would become manifest in this concentration and alliance of perverse power between him and Rosario Murillo.
I’ve gone through a process of my own in which there haven’t been any social organizations to guide me in some senses. I’ve had the support of some organizations; however, my personal struggle only began to make sense when I realized that my own story was the preamble to what today is the history of Nicaragua: a country that’s been abused, a country that’s been raped and held prisoner by impunity.
My greatest yearning is to return to Nicaragua and continue doing what I was doing, which is working on transformative educational processes, on education for peace. I believe this is what has to unite us all.
In the face of this emergence of new leaders, of young people, this time we don’t need saviors, this time our support should go where we’re needed. But first, we have to recover the right to live there without fear.
The last time we talked, you told me that the Nicaraguan people were quiet because they had already suffered the consequences of a civil war and didn’t want to liberate themselves from this regime via another. However, the violence exercised by the State in these past weeks is alarming. Can you see a resolution to the conflict without more violence?
The way in which the regime has gone along seeding terror, and the way in which it’s murdered kids in the last week is a sign that it’s not going to leave power without transforming Nicaragua into a place where we once again have many losses to lament.
The worst of the possible interpretations of events is one in which their adherence to power – which we already have ample evidence of – is a definitive part of a fundamentalist and messianic practice where Daniel Ortega and Rosario Murillo aren’t going to pardon what from their point of view is the people’s treason. The streets of Nicaragua have never been so full. The only thing that previously filled the streets was Danielismo [loyalty to Daniel, as expressed in State-sponsored events], while today we see a people who have been self-convoked maintaining that mobilization. That great “treason”, that act of disobedience will with difficulty go unnoticed by them in their future decisions.
To them, submissiveness is an act of loyalty, and the fact that the people today are demonstrating and rebelling is seen by them as something they’re not going to tolerate, given their concept of being divine beings.
You were quoted in an interview in La Nacion (Costa Rican newspaper), as saying you believe that Ortega is losing control over the levels of corruption and in general the actions of his underlings. What are you referring to with this?
Obviously, when corruption becomes a generalized political practice at all levels, it’s difficult to control. This is a process in which buying off consciences is going to mean that they ask you for more in exchange. The people involved in these acts have gone on asking for more and more, and it should be noted that the loss of the Venezuelan assistance, without giving exact figures, began to create a vacuum in this chain of beneficiaries.
The lack of controls that exists within the structures has to do not only with the resources, but also with the discontent at the process of transferring quotas of power to Rosario Murillo. [She] was imposed as a candidate; she wasn’t the candidate of consensus within the Sandinista party, and her practices of despotic government have been generating discontent, a discontent that’s being manifest today in many of the things we’re seeing.
Do you consider it possible that the Ortega government could succumb to the pressure of the groups of demonstrators and the international community?
It’s unpredictable. If the future of this group in power could be seen through a lens of political lucidity, a decision from the higher circles could be foreseen. But, from the signals we have, it’s difficult to think that they’ll be able to make a realistic assessment.
They continue saying that the demonstrators are criminals, they continue ignoring the number of dead, of people killed; believing that these young people were manipulated, reading the reality in a way that is absolutely distant from the reality. With such a reading, can we still believe they’re going to arrive at a negotiated solution? We don’t know.
Do you feel that anything positive can come out of all this? What are your most optimistic perspectives for the future?
The most relevant things, for me, have been the faces, the words and the actions of these young people. They’re doing what many of us couldn’t do. I believe that they’re the seed, the essence of the best of generations. I’m moved, not only by their wisdom and the audacity, but also by the fact that they’re taking on a responsibility that perhaps was ours at another moment in time. Today they’re at the head of all of us, guiding us, and for that reason I insist that they’re also going to know how to carry this process forward. We don’t want more deaths. We wouldn’t wish for an end that’s bloodier than what we’ve already had. We wouldn’t want to see that once again in Nicaragua, a regime of torture is established in the jails, of people disappearing, like we saw in these past days; we don’t want terror to be implanted as a form of governing.