- - Tuesday, April 16, 2019

While the Trump administration and much of the region focus on the smoldering crisis in nearby Venezuela, longtime Nicaraguan President Daniel Ortega is taking a page from his leftist allies in Caracas to quash a once-burgeoning protest movement, in a quiet but brutal crackdown that last week forced a prominent bishop into exile.

Silvio Baez, an auxiliary bishop in the capital of Managua and outspoken Ortega critic, received numerous death threats before Pope Francis moved him to Rome for what church officials called an undetermined period.

The 60-year-old cleric was a key figure in last year’s talks between the regime and an opposition emboldened by weeks of student-led street protests, which at one point seemed to threaten Mr. Ortega’s political survival.

But emulating the strategy of his Venezuelan counterpart, Nicolas Maduro, the 73-year-old leader of the Sandinista National Liberation Front (FSLN), critics say, has used the promise of dialogue to gain time and then move against protesters in what one analyst dubbed a “climate of terror.” Having invited the Catholic clerics to mediate, Mr. Ortega abruptly turned on them and accused them of abetting a coup.

“They were against the ropes in May [2018],” said Nicaraguan-born Harvard historian Mateo Jarquin. “And then … the regime decided to respond with just overt police and paramilitary violence.”

Security forces started by systematically dismantling opposition roadblocks and then deterred even the most innocuous forms of protest, Mr. Jarquin said.

“You can’t drive around with a Nicaraguan flag or … just sit on a street corner and start waving a Nicaraguan flag,” he said. “That’s really the extent to which protests have been criminalized.”

Over 325 people died during clashes between civilians and government forces in Nicaragua during the past year, and more than 52,000 have fled the country, according to the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights. The Associated Press reported that opponents of Mr. Ortega contend that more than 640 people were being held for political reasons, a number the regime disputes.

Public protests have been banned for months and authorities flexed their muscles again Tuesday by denying a permit for a planned April 18 march by the opposition coalition to mark the one-year anniversary of the start of anti-government protests, saying the request did not meet legal requirements.

Pedro Joaquin Chamorro — a member of one of Nicaragua’s most storied political clans who once served as a leader of the U.S.-backed anti-Sandinista Contras and later in various Cabinet posts, including defense minister — describes a warlike atmosphere at times in Managua.

“[The regime] used paramilitary riot squads, along with the police,” Mr. Chamorro told The Washington Times. “It was a much superior force, prepared for a conventional war — with mortars, with RPG-7s — that suffocated a civic rebellion.”

A ‘troika of tyranny’

The Trump administration has not ignored the tensions in Managua. National Security Adviser John R. Bolton included the Ortega government in his “troika of tyranny” alongside Cuba and Venezuela in a notable address in November. Mr. Bolton plans another address on the region next week on a trip to Florida, the White House has announced.

But Nicaragua clearly appears to be a lesser obsession for the U.S. than Cuba and Venezuela, based on the rhetorical and sanctions fire trained on Havana and Caracas, rather than Managua.

Nicaragua’s opposition factions are taking a less-confrontational approach than in those in Venezuela, where opposition leader Juan Guaido has called Mr. Maduro’s election a fraud and declared himself the country’s interim president.

Meanwhile, the opposition Blue and White National Unity coalition in Nicaragua is trying to avoid arrests with “express protests” of two minutes or less as a worsening economic crisis has forced thousands of citizens to leave the country.

“Nicaragua is losing irreplaceable human capital,” Mr. Chamorro said. “So we’re talking about [political] prisoners, about repression, about casualties. But we’re also talking about a great exile.”

The exodus, though, is largely limited to the elite, which may explain why the Trump administration has not trained its fire in recent months on Mr. Ortega in the way it has on Mr. Maduro, Mr. Jarquin said. Also, unlike other Central American states such as El Salvador and Honduras, Mr. Ortega’s authoritarian rule has restrained the kind of illegal migration to the U.S. that has fueled a crisis on the U.S.-Mexican border.

“Ortega basically said to the United States, ‘Hey, I’m going to cooperate with you guys 100% on migration and 100% on counternarcotics operations,’” he said. “And ‘Look at us: We’re not sending migrants to the United States, we are not having the homicide rates, the insecurity that you see in Honduras, El Salvador and Guatemala.’”

So domestic repression and limited international pressure mean the opposition’s best hope might be the November 2021 presidential election — especially if it can flood the country with international observers, said Stephen Kinzer, a Latin America analyst at Brown University.

Struggling to unify

But without an obvious challenger, Mr. Ortega could pull off another victory, said Mr. Kinzer, a senior fellow at the Watson Institute for International and Public Affairs and author of the classic “Blood of Brothers” account of Nicaragua’s 1980s civil war.

“The opposition in Nicaragua is a desert; they hate each other,” he said. “So coming up with some great unifying candidate … seems pretty far-fetched. If we had a political system like ‘Yes or no on your president,’ Ortega would certainly lose. But that’s not the way [it] works.”

Still, examples like Violeta Chamorro’s 1990 surprise triumph over Mr. Ortega show Nicaraguans’ pragmatism, Mr. Jarquin said. Mr. Chamorro, too, draws inspiration from his mother’s victory, as well as those of Arnoldo Aleman in 1996 and Enrique Bolanos in 2001.

“In the past, we Nicaraguans have demonstrated on three occasions that we can come together and defeat Ortega,” Mr. Chamorro said. “We’ve done it three times, so why couldn’t we do it a fourth time?”

The former minister, whose father’s 1978 assassination sparked the Sandinista Revolution, is holding out hope for a vote earlier than late 2021. But what’s more important, he said, is that the people’s voice be heard.

“Moved up or not, the elections must be truthful, not an electoral farce,” Mr. Chamorro said. “When that happens — a transparent, free, observed and competitive election — I am also confident that we Nicaraguans will have the common sense to unite … to defeat Ortega.”

In the meantime, though, the downward spiral in nearby Venezuela is giving even the most optimistic observers in Managua pause.

“Nicaragua’s fate is quite linked to that of Venezuela,” Mr. Chamorro said. “If Maduro had fallen a few months ago when we all thought he would, change would have also been at Nicaragua’s door.”

The fact that even his enemies consider Mr. Ortega a much shrewder politician than his Venezuelan counterpart only complicates his ouster, as does the “sultanistic” nature of his rule, Mr. Jarquin said.

The strongman effortlessly rebranded his once Marxist FSLN into an “overtly Christian party” and, amid his recent confrontations with Bishop Baez and other Catholic leaders, has cultivated close ties to Nicaragua’s growing evangelical community.

“There’s not a party, there’s not a movement, there’s not even a junta. It’s one family, one man, really,” he said. “These sorts of [regimes] don’t really have any ideological or programmatic goals beyond just self-preservation.”

So what a year ago may have looked like the beginning of the end for Mr. Ortega’s government now feels “frozen,” Mr. Kinzer said.

“I don’t sense that the Nicaraguan situation is bubbling over and about to explode,” he said. “They’ve mastered the art of repression, and they have the situation under control.”

But Bishop Baez, in a farewell sermon before heading to Rome this week, struck a defiant note.

“Our people are a crucified people, but we will resurrect to be a society based on justice, where it is not a crime to think differently,” the bishop said. “God is on the side of the victim, not the executioner.”

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