The report “Nicaragua Elections 2021: an intentional plan to end democracy” concludes that the November 7 vote lacks “legitimacy” and calls for the international community to discard the results of the election. It was issued by the organizations “Urnas Abiertas”, International IDEA, and the Andres Bello University.
With most top opposition leaders in jail and others in exile, and under a tightened police state, the expectations of the Nicaraguan opposition cling to the impact that diplomatic pressure could have. However, the Secretary General of International IDEA, the political scientist and former Vice President of Costa Rica, Kevin Casas-Zamora, warns in this interview with Confidencial and Esta Semana about the limits of international political pressure on the internal situation in Nicaragua.
What does it mean not to recognize the legitimacy of an election? Is it equivalent to repudiation of the Government? Or to disqualify it as an undemocratic Government?
We have already been in that scenario in other countries. There have been elections, particularly in the case of Venezuela, that have not been recognized by the international community. And it is important to have that precedent clear because there is the perception that the non-recognition of the results that emerges from illegitimate elections is like a magic wand, which will transform the situation of democratic collapse in Nicaragua. And it is not like that. It was not like that in the case of Venezuela.
Furthermore, in Venezuela there was not only a rejection of a spurious electoral result, but there was also the recognition of a parallel government, which was accepted as legitimate by more than 50 countries, without this having any effect. Today Nicolas Maduro is still comfortably installed in the Miraflores Palace.
Thus, we must be careful with the expectations of what a non-recognition of the electoral result may imply. What it means in immediate terms is that ipso facto, the Government of Nicaragua begins to be considered an illegitimate Government. And that may trigger some diplomatic consequences, although that is not certain.
For example, it could force OAS member states to suspend Nicaragua as a member of the organization. That is something they could have already done. It was on the discussion table since the massacre of 2018. And here we are more than three years later, with Nicaragua participating in all the meetings of the OAS Permanent Council.
Hence, ultimately, it is not a legal problem. It is a political decision that the countries must make if they are going to make that government, which is deemed illegitimate, pay a price. The other thing is that, even if there were a generalized reaction, there is a limit to the effect that pressure from the international community can have on the internal situation of Nicaragua.
What implications could the illegitimacy of the results have on the actions of these Governments, for example, regarding multilateral credit organizations: International Monetary Fund, World Bank, Inter-American Development Bank, which are directly related to the OAS System?
That is the question that seems much more important to me, namely, whether political sanctions are going to trigger economic sanctions. Until now countries have been very reluctant to do that. And in terms of impact that may occur through international financial organizations, the key country is the United States, which must make the decision whether to sanction Nicaragua in this way.
It is important that, from now on, the application of clauses for the protection of democracy, in international organizations, go hand in hand with financial sanctions. That, generally speaking, would be a positive step. However, in this case the implementation of international financial sanctions to a country, in a state of economic vulnerability like Nicaragua, implies humanitarian consequences we have to deal with. This implies, in the case of the United States, adding to the migratory problem, which they are trying to manage, that exists with the other countries of northern Central America.
So, even in the case of the United States, which is the one who could have a decisive weight in the application of economic sanctions, it seems to me that they are going to think about it a lot, because the humanitarian and migratory consequences are something serious.
How do you see the Central American countries in this crisis? This week, for example, Honduran president Juan Orlando Hernandez arrived in Managua to sign an agreement with Daniel Ortega. On the other hand, Guatemala abstained from voting against the Ortega regime in the OAS. Nayib Bukele has voted against and distanced himself from this agreement. And Costa Rica is promoting an alliance for democracy with Panama and the Dominican Republic. Is there no political center in Central America or in SICA in relation to this crisis?
Nor will there be. The coordination mechanism for political positions in Central America are broken as of a long time ago, because each one of the countries has its own history of democratic deterioration. We are talking about a democratic collapse in Nicaragua, which is a very special case, particularly intense, with a repressive element that has not been seen in Latin America for forty years. But we could also speak of the fraud committed in Honduras in the previous election.
What is happening in El Salvador is clearly a process of visible democratic degradation, which is a transparent application of the manual of democratic regression, which we have seen operating all over the world: in Turkey, Hungary, Sri Lanka, and now El Salvador.
Each of these countries has its own history of democratic decline that they don’t want to be messed with. So, there will be no possibility of a consensual reaction in Central America. At most there will be, as can be expected, some kind of coordination between Costa Rica, Panama and the Dominican Republic, three countries that are trying to coordinate positions on these issues, but the impact that this could have on Nicaragua is very limited.
What is the connection that could exist between international pressure and the restoration of democratic freedoms in Nicaragua? Can the international community have an impact on this process of restoring freedom of assembly, of mobilization in Nicaragua, and a suspension of the police state?
Unfortunately, I am not optimistic in the case of Nicaragua. In other words, that international pressure will generate an irresistible pressure so that the regime, from one moment to another, opens up to negotiate. That, if at all, can be achieved by a chronic economic crisis, of great proportions. It could occur, as there has been cases in the history of democratic transitions in Latin America, forcing a regime to sit down and negotiate.
This is an issue that goes far beyond Nicaragua. Now the sources of support, including financially, that authoritarian governments have, are much greater than in the past. Before, in one of these circumstances, an authoritarian regime would be isolated. Not now. It can go and knock on the door of China, they will charge a price, but will not ask any questions. They can go and touch Russia’s door, which will give them some help in order to mortify the United States in its own geopolitical sphere of influence.
So, the capacity of the international community to put authoritarian regimes in check has diminished a lot. It is not the situation of thirty years ago, when the undemocratic transgressions of a government would immediately lead to an isolation on the part of the international community. No longer.
There is a national and international demand, around the Ortega regime, for the release of political prisoners, including the seven presidential contenders of the opposition. What future does this claim have?
They are hostages that Ortega has taken. And Ortega will use them after November 7 as a negotiation card. Precisely, to try to prevent the economy from collapsing; to try to avoid political and diplomatic isolation. They are not political prisoners, they are hostages.
You mentioned a moment ago the impact that the Biden Administration can have on different governments and international organizations. Biden has announced a policy of multilateral coordinated actions with Europe and with other Latin American governments in this crisis. Can it exert effective pressure?
Yes, it can. If it will be sufficiently effective to foster a political opening in Nicaragua, is what we don’t know. Because the international climate has changed a lot around the protection of democracy. The price autocrats pay is much lower. And to that you have to add that the United States has suffered a serious and visible loss of influence in Latin America in the last fifteen years. Therefore, the capacity of the Biden Administration to mobilize the entire region so that, in some way, diplomatic pressure is generated on the Ortega regime in Nicaragua, seems to me more limited than it was in the past.
Can it be effective? Yes. As I said in the case of international financial organizations, it can have concrete effects that don’t come without collateral consequences of the humanitarian and migratory nature. But in terms of whether this is what generates a regional phenomenon, a regional collective action to intervene diplomatically in the case of Nicaragua. I highly doubt it.
If the political solution, in the end, is in Nicaragua, as far as the capacity of the opposition to mobilize that political majority, or of rescuing its leadership, today is in prison and in exile; however, there is a police state in the country that prevents the opposition from recovering that initiative.
That is a tragedy that we have already seen unfold in an extreme in the case of Venezuela. I do not believe that in the last 100 years in Latin America (there has been) a national collapse of the magnitude that it has occurred in Venezuela: a political collapse, an economic collapse, a collapse of public order. And, yet there is Nicolás Maduro, and there is no obvious possibility of getting rid of him.
One of the things that has changed, which makes autocrats pay a lower price, is that, with globalization, the possibility of people to mobilize and leave their countries, to go elsewhere, is greater. So, people vote with their feet. Thus, in a very perverse way, globalization is allowing escape valves to be generated that help sustain authoritarian regimes like Maduro’s and Ortega’s. I am afraid that the impotence of the international community, despite good intentions, will end up generating a massive migratory flow.
But, at the end, what you are saying is that Ortega and Maduro can maintain their dictatorship with impunity?
Sadly. The evidence we have seen in Latin America, in the last fifteen years, suggest that. I am not predicting it, and certainly, much less, am I looking forward to it. In other words, I would like to see something completely different. But frankly, nothing that we have seen in the last fifteen or twenty years, in Latin America, leads me to think that the reaction of the international community will be enough to change the dynamic that has been under construction in Nicaragua for fifteen years, and that has worsened a lot recently, with absolute impunity.
If over three hundred deaths from government violence in 2018 was not able to generate a severe reaction from the international community, nothing will. If three hundred+ deaths are not serious enough, seven imprisoned presidential candidates are not going to be.