The Dictatorship is Destroying Nicaragua’s Social Capital

The Ministry of the Interior is in charge of persecuting and shutting down autonomous NGOs.

CISAS is one of the dozens of Nicaraguan NGOs stripped of their legal status since 2018.

Despite this crusade against the NGOs, people do not need legal status to organize

By Silvio Prado (Confidencial)

HAVANA TIMES – Participating in any type of organization not controlled by the FSLN has become a crime in Nicaragua, and that is even worse if the organization is an NGO. This trend is not new — it began immediately after Daniel Ortega’s return to power, as a moral lynching of sorts was sparked, complete with all sorts of dark propaganda.

The attacks that began in 2008 spiked with the confiscation of the first NGOs in 2018 and has escalated further in 2021.  It is only in the last months that the attack has broadened to include all possible associative forms, including medical associations, with the impact of eroding the key elements of social capital: interpersonal trust and reciprocal community relationships.

The fabric of community organizations in Nicaragua has a high degree of density and complexity due to several factors, including the withdrawal of state support and funding from many social areas, the significant reduction of the FSLN party in organizing civil society, and the huge increase in NGOs as important factors in community development.

This complex fabric of the NGOs reached spheres of local life that had only been superficially organized previously, or had not been organized at all, for example the Potable Water and Sanitation Committees (CAPS). 

As these organizational forms became interrelated, they became more complex and began to deal with intersecting issues such as community development plans. Faced with the abandonment of public agencies and the implosion of the “party” in 1990, the NGOs played a key role as facilitators of community improvement and development.

Innumerable studies carried out prior to 2008 showed that, in addition to the Catholic Church, NGOs and autonomous organizations played a role in civil society, promoting the strengthening of local social capital, and building on the interpersonal trust and relationships of communal reciprocity that flourished after years of political polarization in the wake of the war during the 1980s.

The many NGO programs for the population did not teach people how to set up barricades, organize demonstrations or fashion homemade explosives, contact bombs or Molotov cocktails. Nor did those programs impart urban or rural guerrilla tactical strategies or the use of firearms. It would have been nonsense to teach such elementary things to a population that, steeped in years of war, had already more than learned them.

In other words, the now reviled civil organizations were committed to strengthening the relationships of trust and reciprocity that already existed within their communities. They did not propose to break with the social order, nor did they promote any political elements to dispute the power of the traditional parties.

In case it has not been clear, it should be emphasized that social organizations, including many NGOs, contributed to mend the wounds left by the war, to rebuild public space without exclusion and to reestablish the sense of common good that had been so degraded.

But then, what people thought would never happen again did happen.  In 2007, fanaticism returned to contaminate intercommunity relations and partisanship became a criterion for access to public programs. People had to turn to the CPCs and approval from the party’s political secretaries just to get a sheet of zinc, a scholarship and so much more.

However, the CPCs were never able to replace the complex network of organizations in the communities, even though they have managed to weaken, absorb or dissolve some local committees. The CPCs were just one more organization in many ways, but their lack of autonomy condemned them to paralysis or to becoming an arm of political intelligence to denounce their neighbors, especially after the 2018 uprising.

Now with the pretext of finding people to blame for the social uprising three years ago, the government is once again going after any organization daring to be autonomous from the government/party — using laws passed for precisely this purpose: to persecute and punish any form of freedom of thought (treason to the fatherland), going after projects that don’t pay bribes to the de facto power of the political secretaries (money laundering) and expressing a divergent opinion from the official discourse (cybercrime).

However, recent events show that they do not intend to stop there. The arbitrary cancellation of legal status for many political parties and health organizations (NGOs and unions) reveals that the government is set on going even further: they hope to destroy people’s will to organize, feeding a self-centered sense of everyone out for themselves and destroy existing bonds of solidarity.

By canceling the legal status of so many organizations and parties, they are stripping huge segments of the population of any option to act peacefully, even as freedom of association continues to be enshrined by law.  Thus, the dictatorship aims to destroy the right to form parties that do not wholly align with its authoritarian project – a similar action as seen in Russia, Belarus and Turkey.

Additionally, it wants the whole country to be a desert in terms of social capital. The dictatorship knows that the push towards self-organizing was created on the foundation of free association, which left a huge mark three years ago on the utopia of “responsible authoritarianism” they had embedded in the collective psyche.  This is why the government is now so dedicated to persecuting organizations that promoted citizen empowerment.

But despite its crusade to wipe out the political opposition, the government forgets that people’s lived experience shows them that they do not need a legal go-ahead to organize.  Only fools would suggest otherwise.  Long before the state formally recognizes an organization, there is the will to meet, to associate and to participate. 

Just as community problems are the best spark for reestablishing cooperative relationships where there was previously mistrust, the parties, medical associations, lawyers or any other profession do not need the dictatorship’s approval to meet, to deliberate on national problems, or to hold conventions or congresses.

So every time a neighborhood or community improvement committee meets, or a group of people comes together for partisan purposes, or a medical association meets to catch up on the latest scientific advances, the dictatorship will have been defeated once again and the social capital will show the country is still in very good health.

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