MANAGUA – A small yet emotional protest held April 9 in defense of the Caribbean coast’s right to hold municipal elections in November could be the beginning of a slow awakening by civil society to challenge the increasingly authoritarian ambitions of the Ortega administration, according to those in attendance at the rally.
Though only several hundred people showed up for last week’s protest in front of the Supreme Elections Council (CSE), the event marked the first anti-government demonstration in Managua since President Daniel Ortega returned to office 15 months ago.
A simultaneous protest was held in the northern Caribbean capital of Bilwi, where several hundred indigenous people marched peacefully through the streets to demand municipal elections Nov. 2 – the same day the rest of the country votes.
The CSE earlier this month postponed until April 2009 the elections in three Sandinista-controlled municipalities in the North Atlantic Autonomous Region (RAAN), supposedly due to storm damage from Hurricane Felix last September (NT, April 11).
Political opposition leaders, as well as respected constitutional lawyers, have decried the move as an illegal effort by the Sandinistas to stay in power beyond the constitutionally mandated term, and have filed flurry of challenges before the Supreme Court.
At the protest last week in Managua, demonstrators warned that if Ortega is allowed to get away with suspending the elections on the Caribbean, he’ll try to get away with even more in the future.
“President Daniel Ortega is testing the population’s capacity for resistance,” Liberal party legislator José Pallaís told The Nica Times. “This decision could be replicated, so we have to use all the political means we have to stop it.”
Others are echoing the call to censor Ortega’s authoritarian tendencies, before the Sandinista government starts to resemble its former self.
“This is how the situation started in the ’80s, with repression of the indigenous people,” said anti-Sandinista Miskito leader Osorno “Comandante Blas” Coleman, referring to the Sandinistas’ brutal relocation campaign of indigenous populations in 1981. “[Suspending the elections] is an act of aggression against the indigenous.”
Coleman isn’t the only one to evoke the painful memories of the Sandinistas’ policies toward the northern Caribbean indigenous communities in the 1980s.
Suzana Marley Cunningham, an activist from the northern border community of Waspam – one of the three indigenous municipalities affected by the elections suspension – said she worries that the Sandinistas’ marginalization of the Miskito communities “will multiply.”
“We are Nicaraguans, but with this decision to suspend the elections they are separating us from Nicaragua,” Cunningham said.
The activist said her community has been through too much to now be denied the right to vote. “We’ve suffered from (hurricanes) Mitch and Felix, from rats, from siknis (collective hysteria), from hunger and from plagues of all types,” she said. “We want elections!”
Motives for Suspension
The Sandinista-YATAMA alliance has said its reason for wanting to cancel the elections is storm damage caused by last year’s category-five Hurricane Felix, which destroyed many school houses used for voting and flooded homes, losing people’s cedula identification cards needed to vote. The CSE
agreed with the Sandinista argument and ruled to suspend the Nov. 2 elections until the last Sunday in April 2009 – a decision that legal analysts argue isn’t in the CSE’s power to decide.
“I think the only institutional solution is to respect the Constitution, which is very clear that the elections have to be held on Nov. 2, as established by the Electoral Law,”said lawmaker Pallaís, president of the National Assembly’s Judicial Commission.
“Any change from this is breaking with the state of law and in violation of the Constitution.”
Pallaís said he thinks that the Sandinista- YATAMA alliance wants to suspend the elections to give themselves more time to pour resources into the region in attempt to win sympathy and votes after their dismal performance in office.
“I think that they have their plans to try to reverse the rejection of the population over the next six months, to do what they haven’t done in the past eight months (since the hurricane),” said Pallaís, who was one of the three Liberal lawmakers to visit the Caribbean coast during the April 4 rioting (NT, April 11). “They will give new attention to the population in hopes that the people will make the mistake [of voting for them again].”
The lawmaker could be right. During the April 9 march in Bilwi, Channel 2 TV reported a less than expected turnout due – apparently – to Sandinista-YATAMA officials offering the local population a day’s work in exchange for food, which was reportedly taken from the government warehouses storing hurricane-relief supplies.
A local woman in Bilwi told the Channel 2 reporter that they had to take the offer of work because they were hungry and without food. Camera crews filmed a group of indigenous men working to clear the sides of the road with machetes as others marched.
Ortega, too, renewed his call this week to “reconstruct” the storm-ravaged Caribbean, promising more building supplies and a new health center for Bilwi.
To Be Settled in the Streets
Despite several challenges before the Supreme Court, very few in the opposition movement have any faith that the judicial system will resolve the election issue fairly.
“There is no confidence in the institutions here,” said Liberal party lawmaker Enrique Quiñonez, president of the National Assembly’s Commission on Peace, Defense, Government and Human Rights. “The court, as we all know, is controlled by the Sandinista Front.”
Quiñonez said he thinks the matter will have to be settled in the streets.
“The people of Nicaragua have to come out in the streets civilly to demonstrate their rejection of the arbitrariness of this government,” he told The Nica Times.
Edmundo Jarquín, an economist and leader of the left-wing Sandinista Renovation Movement (MRS), had predicted last month that the population would soon start to rise up against the Ortega government over the deteriorating socio-economic condition of the country (NT, April 4).
This week he added, “The difference between socio-economic discontentment and political protest is a very short road.And now the two are starting to unite.”