Can Nicaragua have a national dialogue without Daniel Ortega?

MANAGUA— Nicaragua appears to being inching towards dialogue.

After a week of nationwide street fighting and brutal police repression that left at least 30 people dead and countless injured or missing, Nicaragua appears to be taking a tentative but important step towards establishing a national dialogue.

Capping another wild day of unexpected twists and turns in “the land where lead floats and cork sinks,” the Episcopal Conference of Nicaragua on Tuesday night agreed to “mediate and witness” a national dialogue that endeavors to mend the broken Nicaragua family.

In a brief address to the nation, Managua Archbishop Leopoldo Brenes called for an end to violence and property destruction before the talks can begin. No timeline or terms have been established for the future talks, and it’s not clear who would participate. But Brenes’ call to the negotiating table seems to be finding some early support, especially among business leaders and embattled President Daniel Ortega.

Students from UCA marched on Managua Tuesday night, as part of the 7th night of protestsTim Rogers / Fusion

Students from UCA marched on Managua Tuesday night, as part of the 7th night of protests

The position of university students is less certain. A group calling themselves “April 19 University Movement” said they’d agree to talks under 10 conditions, including criminal charges against police officers involved in killing, the “immediate suspension” of Police Chief Aminta Granera and other top brass, and guarantees of no reprisal against those who participated in the protests.

But as of Tuesday night, it was unclear what their position is on President Ortega’s participation in the talks— something many students say is a must for any national dialogue to move forward. “This government has to leave power,” one of the April 19 leaders said, after concluding his list of 10 conditions that didn’t include Ortega’s removal (was that bonus track #11?)

In any event, Ortega seems to be the one most interested in the prospect of talks. Anything to stay at the table after Monday’s massive march of some 300,000 Nicaraguans calling for his ouster.

Since then, Ortega has been trying to walk back some of his mistakes from last week. Tuesday started with a bizarre scene of barefoot prisoners with shaved heads getting released on the highway in different parts of the capital. Many of them were apparently protests—students and others— who were detained by police during the protests.

Hours later, Ortega flipped the switch to reestablish the signal of independent TV station 100% Noticias, which was forced off the air during a media blackout last week.

Ortega’s slight retreat, which would have been a shocking about-face in the days of the old Nicaragua a week ago, may have been enough of a goodwill gesture to convince the Catholic Church to accept its invitation to mediate talks. But Ortega’s backtracking wasn’t so much a concession as it was a cheap fix to problems of his own creation.

“You can’t call this setting conditions for dialogue; these are our constitutional rights,” COSEP President José Adán Aguerri told me on Tuesday afternoon.

Many students I’ve talked to in the past 24 hours say the only real concession Ortega can make is to leave office and bring his wife with him.

“There will be no dialogue with this government, because this government never keeps its promises,” a masked Upoli student leader going by codename “El Verde” told me on Monday. He said students fear repression if they agree to talks and leave their campus stronghold. “The first thing [Ortega] would do is send people to kill us, because that’s what he wants. He wants us to let our guard down.”

"El Verde" (right) is one of many students suspicious of calls to dialogue with OrtegaTim Rogers

"El Verde" (right) is one of many students suspicious of calls to dialogue with Ortega

Another masked student noted that one of Nicaragua’s greatest betrayals in history happened when guerrilla leader Augusto C. Sandino was killed by Somoza’s National Guard after agreeing to talks with President Sacasa in 1934. Some students told me they’re afraid their fate would be the same, especially considering that many of them come from Sandinista backgrounds. Being a traitor is a serious offense in party that was born as a marxist guerrilla movement.

But if Nicaragua’s choice is to either opt for “an open and inclusive dialogue” or an escalation of bloodshed, hopefully Nicaraguans will chose the former, says Aguerri. It’s the only way for the country to clear the air of teargas, and put the stone pavers back in the roads.

“At the end of the day, these issues need to be worked out at the negotiating table, and not on the street,” Aguerri told me. “I think Nicaragua has enough experience with all this to know what the result will be if we try to deal with these issues on the street.”

A banner on the outside gate of UpoliTim Rogers

A banner on the outside gate of Upoli

Aguerri, who has been president of COSEP for as long as Ortega as been President of Nicaragua, managed an 11-year alliance between the business sector and Ortega’s government. The pact between the two— a “model of governance,” as Ortega called it—led to years of steady macroeconomic growth and record levels of foreign investment.

But Aguerri says the business arrangement died the day Ortega unilaterally decreed a series of sweeping tax reforms last Wednesday. The Nicaragua that’s emerging in the wake of the protests requires a different kind of working relationship, he says.

Nicaragua needs a true national dialogue— something it’s never tried before. It needs to be a process that’s open, inclusive, democratic, institutionalized and guaranteed. No more of the backroom “pactos” that have defined Nicaraguan politics forever.

The dialogue will have to be a serious and legally binding, Aguerri says; it’ll require clear methodology, rules, and enough seats around the table where everyone feels included without turning into a “Tower of Babble.”

And Danny will have to be included.

“A national dialogue without the government and without Daniel is difficult,” Aguerri says. “It wouldn’t be a national dialogue. And in that case, we’d be going in the wrong direction. We’ve always said the only way forward is through dialogue; we can’t repeat the same mistakes of our past.”