San José, Costa Rica, since 1956

Civil Society Worried About NGO Manual

MANAGUA – A forthcoming government manual aimed at regulating international organizations working with Nicaraguan civil society is causing alarm among activists here who claim the measure is a thin guise for the Sandinista administration’s continued crackdown on critical social movements.

Though the regulatory manual is still in the process of consultation with representatives of international aid organizations, activists claim the spirit of the initiative is already clear.

“This manual is going to try to establish a mechanism for the government to arbitrarily discriminate against people’s right to organize,” said renowned journalist Carlos Fernando Chamorro, whose Center for Communication and Investigation (CINCO) was raided last year as part of a controversial government probe of several non-governmental organizations (NT, Oct. 17, 2008).

The investigations and subsequent raids of a handful of non-governmental organizations led to a massive international outcry from a wide range of individuals and organizations, including distinguished world leaders, rights organizations and foreign governments (NT, Nov. 7, 2008).

Chamorro’s group, which had its files and computers confiscated by the government, was never accused of any crime. The computers and files were eventually returned three months later, but the case against CINCO remains ambiguously and ominously open.

Chamorro claims he is a victim of political persecution for his outspoken criticism of the government.

Now, Chamorro says, the government plans to take its crackdown to the next level by institutionalizing its “arbitrary investigations” through the new manual, which the Ministry of the Interior plans to decree into law in the coming weeks – a move the opposition is already calling illegal.

“When (the government) started the persecution of CINCO in September of 2008, it was always clear that the final goal was to create a mechanism to control and impede social movements and put up obstacles for them to get funding to promote rights, transparency and democracy,” Chamorro told The Nica Times.

Others who have been targets of similar government investigations agree the intention of the forthcoming manual is to tighten the screws on civil society.

Sofia Montenegro, of the Autonomous Women’s Movement (MAM), which was also raided by government authorities last year, claims the goal of the new manual is to “isolate” and “outlaw” social movements in a discriminatory and “fascist” manner.

“Basically, this will be a mechanism of political control,” Montenegro said. “They want to isolate civil organizations from the rest of the international community.”

The Civil Coordinator, an umbrella group of 600 social movements and nongovernmental groups (NGOs) in Nicaragua, also warns that the new manual could become “a mechanism of political control.”

Luisa Molina, spokeswoman for the Civil Coordinator, said they have a team of lawyers who are analyzing a draft copy of the manual that was leaked to them. She said the lawyers say the decree would violate at least three articles of the Constitution pertaining to the right to citizen participation.

According to the draft manual, she said, international organizations would be prohibited from funding any groups working in a political and partisan manner – vague terms that lawyers fear could allow the government to enforce the law selectively against certain groups.

“This is the government overstepping its bounds,” she said. “The state of Nicaragua has to guarantee the right to citizen participation, not act as an obstacle to it.”

The Civil Coordinator’s lawyers also question the legal foundation for the manual.

Molina argues that the Constitution establishes that the Ministry of Foreign Affairs is the regulatory body for international organizations operating here, not the Ministry of the Interior. Secondly, she said, the manual would be in violation of the established time limit to enact a regulatory bylaw to the Constitution (18 years too late, in fact).

The civil society network is also complaining that the government has not consulted them on the new initiative, as it had promised to do last year.

Yet despite the list of concerns about the new manual and the general lack of trust in the government’s regulatory efforts, Molina admits the “panorama is still not clear.”

Activists hope that representatives of foreign organizations currently negotiating with the government will be able to steer the manual away from wording that could make it a tool for oppression.

A European delegate in the talks with the government told The Nica Times this week that the last word has not been written, but declined to discuss the matter in detail until after the consultative rounds have ended.

Meanwhile, in response to the growing concerns, the government this week sent out an angry communication calling civil society “civil dictatorships” and attacking the “right wing” media that “defends” the non-governmental groups.

The government communique accused “a good part of NGO delegates” of manipulating the situation of poverty in Nicaragua to defend their own personal “gold mines.”


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