Nicaragua: Self-Amnesties Don’t Last

Nicaraguans protest in front of the atrium of the Managua cathedral. Some young people place a huge blue and white flag on the roof of the temple. Photo: Carlos Herrera

Self-awarded amnesties last only as long as the despotic power of the amnestied.

By Jose Luis Rocha (Confidencial)

HAVANA TIMES – “God helps those who help themselves”, is the title of a collection of proverbs that Carlos Monsivais published as a book. The Ortega government has brought to light their own version of helping yourself, passed on Saturday, June 8th, in the form of a new parliamentary initiative: the amnesty law. This new law awards them a pardon, so that God and the people will pardon the Ortega camp.

Neither God nor the people can deny self-forgiveness, but not for the reasons that those who drafted the law probably thought about – including us in their universal pardon and then ordering us to reciprocate – but because the attempt to force a self-pardon for executioners who brandish the scythe and cling to power is as fruitless a task as is denying a narcissist with a microphone in their hands the chance to blow their own horn.

Is there anything strange about the fact that the person who awarded himself the unilateral right to rent part of the Nicaraguan territory for 100 years, now awards himself a pardon? Not at all. But yes, it’s a fact charged with many implications, not all of them favorable to those promoting the amnesty.

Let’s examine a few:

The legal proclamation shouted from the rooftops has tactical value, because the word “amnesty” weaves its own irresistible spell. Once it has been set rolling, the phosphorescent word “amnesty” will enter the headlines of the principal media outlets and will be the only thing that most of the readers and TV viewers retain in their short-term memories.

I dare to suppose that in the European media it will be music to the ears of a distracted public, a sack that holds not only the people on the streets but also many others, including influential intellectuals that pass themselves off as experts. In the United States and in Europe, the short-term memory rules in the consumption of news about Latin America. And among some intellectuals, there’s been a huge gap in time where there’s no more space for any new ideas since the 1980s. Among this group, the word “amnesty” will immediately evoke the postwar period. As a tactical recourse, then, it’s a net gain for the Ortega camp.

The law in itself also has a strategic end: it seeks to cement the future of impunity. But that’s where the problems start. In the first place, because it’s not amnesty they seek but immunity from justice. In the United States, the president can concede a pardon for a crime. But to do so, it must be a crime that has gone through the courts, and the subject has to have recognized their guilt and asked to be pardoned. Here, the self-pardon stems from a negation of the perpetrators’ condition – the villains present themselves as the offended party – and from the impossibility of being investigated and processed and from the glee at his military triumph.

Why a pardon if no crimes have been recognized? Here’s where a crater-sized fissure appears in the strategy: a request for amnesty amounts to a manifest accusation. Pardoning yourself is a tacit admission of guilt.

The second problem is that self-awarded amnesties last only as long as the despotic power of the amnestied. Beyond this tipping point, everything solid dissolves into the air. The amnesty that ARENA and the FMLN awarded themselves in El Salvador was sustained, and not always firmly, while those parties were dominant and maintained an agreement that in turn was built on something resembling a military stalemate. Now that this fatal duo is being reedited, they’re facing a fierce and worthy resistance. Even so, the amnesty has lasted, without assuring total impunity, for over 20 years.

In Nicaragua, the conditions for emulating that model don’t exist. There’s no military draw here, nor negotiated agreements. Nor are there two common subjects for amnesty, for example crimes committed by two armed groups. Here there’s only one armed group. For that reason, for the moment there won’t be an amnesty, even though they put this name on it, but rather the imposition of impunity for some, and ferocious pseudo-judicial and extra-judicial punishments for others. In synthesis, amnesty – when it functions even for a while – must be a mutual gift, not a gift to oneself.

Of all the hidden details, Article 3 regarding the non-repetition is the darkest, and the one that peels off the kindly painted face and reveals the pointed fangs of the law: “Those benefited by the present law must abstain from perpetrating new events that involve repetitive conducts which generate the crimes contemplated here. Non-observance of the principle of Non-repetition will bring as a consequence the revocation of the benefit established by the law.”

The crimes “contemplated here” can be summed up in five words: “attempt at a coup d’etat”. And what exactly are the conducts and events that “promote a coup” according to the regime? Ah, there’s the detail. They’re events and behaviors considered normal and basic conquests of civil rights: participating in marches, waving the country’s flag, going out onto the street with a blue and white hat, exercising honest journalism, taking photos of demonstrators, participating in the strike, defending a brother who’s being attacked, and calling for fiscal civil disobedience among many other civic behaviors and innocuous doings. The amnesty law means the legal ratification of an entirely new classification of crimes.  

The self-pardoned, then, are off to see God, begging for amnesty, while with the mallet they threaten those released from jail. I don’t believe they’ll ever become the self-punished, nor that they delude themselves into believing that they’ve deluded us. They know that their game is on the table, and that only force sustains it. For how long? Concepcion Arenal, a lawyer who made prison visits in nineteenth century Spain wrote: “All power falls impelled by the evil it’s done. Each fault it commits becomes, sooner or later, a battering ram that contributes to knocking it down.”  Knock yourself over, and all of us will knock you down.