Twelve days after the seizure of the National Palace in Managua – on August 22, 1978, at the hands of a guerrilla commando of 25 young men – the Nicaraguan crisis entered the agenda of the Organization of American States (OAS) for the first time. It was the beginning of a relationship between the regional entity and the Sandinista National Liberation Front (FSLN). More than four decades later, between ups and downs, that link is heading towards only one path: rupture.
The then Venezuelan ambassador to the OAS, José María Machín, requested on September 2, 1978, that the Permanent Council meet to discuss the Nicaraguan crisis. This meeting took place on the 18th of that month: an extraordinary meeting of foreign ministers, the highest body of the regional organization, was approved.
On September 23, 1978, the foreign ministers advanced the first on-site visit to Nicaragua by a delegation of the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR). At the same time, they created and integrated an International Mediation Commission, which was formed by the Foreign Minister of the Dominican Republic, Ramón Emilio Jiménez; the former Vice Minister of Foreign Affairs of Guatemala, Alfredo Oviedo; and the United States representative, Ambassador William Bowdler.
The OAS was taking those first steps in Washington, while the clashes between guerrillas and the National Guard, which attacked the rebels and the civilian population “with everything”, were increasing in Nicaragua. On September 13 of that year, dictator Anastasio Somoza Debayle suspended the exercise of all constitutional guarantees for a period of 30 days throughout the national territory.
In addition, the citizenry was suffering the consequences of a national strike called by the Frente Amplio Opositor (FAO), which had already exceeded 90% of businesses by mid-September 1978, according to reports in newspaper La Prensa at the time.
Internationally, the FSLN guerrillas were beginning to enjoy general sympathy. That appeal became most evident thanks to the seizure of the National Palace, an action described as a “far too simple madness” by Gabriel García Márquez, the Colombian Nobel Prize winner in literature. The international media turned to the stories of the 25 young people – led by Edén Pastora (deceased), Hugo Torres and Dora María Téllez, currently imprisoned by Daniel Ortega in the cells of “the new Chipote”- who made Somoza Debayle give in and release 60 political prisoners.
IACHR and the Mediating Commission
After the IACHR’s on-site observation, conducted between October 3 and 12, 1978, the Commission produced a devastating report on the atrocities of the Somoza dictatorship. The evaluation was published on November 17, 1978, and presented to the OAS Permanent Council on December 18 of the same year.
Meanwhile, the International Mediating Commission did not achieve its objective of conducting negotiations between the dictatorship and the opposition, which included the FSLN guerrillas, by organizing a plebiscite to decide whether Somoza would continue or leave office.
At the end of December 1978, after more than two months of negotiations, Somoza rejected the holding of a plebiscite, and counterposed a “popular consultation” on whether or not to interrupt his “constitutional” mandate, with the alternative of a constituent assembly. This option was flatly rejected by the opposition.
According to a report in the Spanish newspaper El País, Alfonso Robelo Callejas, leader of the FAO, said “The Somoza regime will be responsible in the eyes of history for the destruction and the blood that will flow in the future of this country”.
“Somoza was never interested in that exit. He was buying time, and in the end he said he did not accept because that was unconstitutional,” recalled writer Sergio Ramírez Mercado, in an article published by CONFIDENCIAL in 2018. The novelist was part of the Group of Twelve, a group of intellectuals, businessmen, professionals and religious people who publicly supported the FSLN between 1978 and 1979.
Constant negotiations took place at the OAS for ten months – all favoring the FSLN’s plans -, which reached their peak at the end of June 1979. On Saturday, June 23 of that month, a majority of the foreign ministers of the regional organization approved one of the most forceful declarations in its history.
For the foreign ministers, the solution to the Nicaraguan crisis at that time was the “immediate and definitive replacement of the Somoza regime”. It was the first time that the OAS declared a government of a member state illegitimate.
“The inhumane conduct of the dictatorial regime prevailing in that country, as evidenced by the report of the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights, is the fundamental cause of the dramatic situation being experienced by the Nicaraguan people” the foreign ministers’ conclave justified.
The foreign ministers also demanded the “installation of a democratic government in the territory of Nicaragua, whose composition includes the main representative groups opposed to the Somoza regime and which reflects the free will of the Nicaraguan people”.
Another aspect of this OAS session is that the Panamanian representatives gave a chair to Nicaraguan priest Miguel D’Escoto Brockman, member of the Group of Twelve, the FSLN and Chancellor of the Government Junta in exile, so that he could present the Nicaraguan situation before the regional forum.
At that time, the OAS was composed of 25 countries and the declaration obtained a majority of 18 votes. The former foreign minister and former president of Costa Rica, Rafael Ángel Calderón Fournier, highlighted -in a recent interview with the program Esta Semana- that the condemnation of Somoza was admitted, despite the fact that most Latin American countries “were under the military boot”.
“It was the biggest condemnation ever made in history against a regime, in this case the Somoza regime in Nicaragua. I don’t remember there being a stronger one, and the continental condemnation was so important that within a month the dictatorship fell,” recalled Calderón, who was Costa Rica’s foreign minister in June 1979 and voted in favor of the resolution.
In his brief letter of resignation to Congress, dated July 16, 1979, Somoza acknowledged the role of the OAS in his resignation. “I have decided to abide by the disposition of the Organization of American States and hereby resign the presidency to which I was popularly elected. My resignation is irrevocable”, the dictator wrote.
The FSLN also understood the role of the OAS. Seeing the fall of Somocismo at hand, the Government Junta – formed in June 1979 – sent a letter on July 12 of that year to the Secretary General of the OAS, Alejandro Orfila, in which they detailed a plan to achieve peace.
According to the Junta, this plan was drawn up based on the declaration of the OAS foreign ministers. “A resolution which is historic in all senses, since it demands the immediate replacement of the genocidal Somocista dictatorship, which is now coming to an end”, the letter emphasized. The Government Junta was composed of Violeta Barrios de Chamorro, Sergio Ramírez Mercado, Alfonso Robelo Callejas, Moisés Hassan Morales and Daniel Ortega Saavedra.
The decade of the 80’s
During the first Sandinista government of the 1980s, the role of the OAS was marginal with respect to the war conflict of the time. “Diplomatic activity in the 80s was centered on the United Nations, on one side, and the mediating role of the Contadora Group (Mexico, Panama, Venezuela and Colombia) on the other”, a former Nicaraguan diplomat who asked to remain anonymous for fear of being imprisoned, as has happened during the current wave of repression and political persecution in Nicaragua, told CONFIDENCIAL.
“The participation of the OAS lasted until the end of the peace process, through the International Commission for Support and Verification (CIAV), headed by Secretary General Joao Baena Soares. The CIAV worked within Nicaragua, while UNOCA worked mainly in Honduras, for the demobilization and disarmament process of the Nicaraguan resistance”, he explained.
In an article published in Envío Magazine in November 2020 Nicaragua’s former ambassador to the OAS, Edgar Parrales, recounted his experience in the regional forum. “In the years of the Revolution, Nicaragua enjoyed practically unconditional support from all countries. From some, openly, and from the others discreetly, because they did not want to earn the hatred of Big Brother.”
“In that situation, my strategy in those years could not be to get votes in favor, because the other countries did not want to confront the United States. My strategy was to get abstentions, and the more the better. Because a majority abstention annulled any resolution against Nicaragua. In the four and a half years I spent at the OAS, none of the attempts of the United States and their allies to obtain a resolution against Nicaragua succeeded”, the former priest, who was the Nicaraguan representative to the OAS between 1982 and 1986, described.
Paradoxically, Parrales was arrested on Ortega’s orders on Monday, November 22. The 79-year-old former diplomat is being held in one of the cells of the Evaristo Vásquez prison complex, known as “the new Chipote”. According to the Nicaraguan Center for Human Rights (Cenidh), the Prosecutor’s Office accused the political analyst of “inciting violence” for his statements on diplomatic issues.
To the rescue of Enrique Bolaños
The OAS played a leading role in Nicaraguan politics once again in 2005, after the then president Enrique Bolaños resorted to the regional organization to mediate a crisis that he faced against Ortega’s FSLN and the Constitutionalist Liberal Party (PLC), of former president Arnoldo Alemán.
Ortega and Alemán were in the majority in the National Assembly, where they made a deal and approved constitutional reforms that took away powers from the Executive Branch and transferred them to the Legislative.
On July 14, 2005, in an extraordinary session of the Permanent Council, Bolaños denounced that Ortega and Alemán were trying to establish “a dictatorship from the Legislative Branch”, since they had shared control of the Judicial and Electoral branches.
At the same time, Bolaños asked for help from the OAS Secretary General, José Miguel Insulza, who sent a mission to resolve the crisis in Nicaragua. The delegation was headed by Argentine diplomat Dante Caputo, who remained in the country for five months.
After the OAS resolution, the Sandinista caudillo and Bolaños negotiated the approval of a Framework Law which interrupted the application of the constitutional reforms, mediated by Caputo.
Ortega returns to power
Ortega’s victory in the 2006 elections – with 38% of the vote – was welcomed by the OAS. In a press release, the OAS Electoral Observation Mission expressed “Its congratulations to the people of Nicaragua for their exemplary behavior”, and congratulated Ortega Saavedra on his electoral victory.
These were the last elections in which the OAS exercised the role of electoral observers, in the successive elections of 2011 and 2016 it played a role of “accompaniment” or “guest”, while it was not present in the last November elections.
When Ortega returned to power, the OAS General Secretariat was presided over by Chilean socialist politician José Miguel Insulza, with whom the FSLN government maintained “comfortable relations” according to former diplomats. In 2015, the Uruguayan former foreign minister Luis Almagro Lemes took over as secretary general, whose first years were equally “comfortable” for the Sandinista administration.
Those good relations were evident on the last day of February 2017, when Almagro visited Ortega at his residence in El Carmen, on the occasion of the signing of a memorandum of understanding between the OAS and the FSLN Government, to cooperate in the political, electoral and institutional areas.
This memorandum included three agreements, one for each of the areas mentioned, which in principle would be valid for three years and extendable. However, there was no extension and the agreement expired without pain or glory, since Ortega did not push for any changes.
The cry of April 2018
The manageable relations between the OAS and the FSLN were altered in April 2018, when a civic insurrection -which lasted almost six months- showed the cruel and murderous face of the Ortega regime: at least 355 citizens were killed and another 2000 were injured due to government repression.
The OAS, IACHR and the Ortega government signed an agreement at the end of May to create an Interdisciplinary Group of Independent Experts (GIEI), which independently investigated the events of violence that occurred between April 18 and May 30, 2018. Later that year, the regime expelled the experts. In its final report, the GIEI accused the Nicaraguan state of committing “crimes against humanity”.
A little more than two months after the protests began, the OAS General Assembly of Foreign Ministers discussed the Nicaraguan crisis in Washington on June 5. They condemned the violence in general, but there was no direct reference to the responsibility of the National Police in the murder of the hundred citizens that had been murdered at that time.
On June 22, the IACHR presented a report on the situation in Nicaragua before the Permanent Council, after a mission visited the country between May 17 and 21, and detailed that, up to June 19, “the repressive escalation of the State “had left at least 212 dead, 1337 wounded and 507 political prisoners.
The OAS as a whole did not pronounce itself on the Ortega massacre until mid-July of that year, when the murders already exceeded 300. On the 18th of that month, the Permanent Council issued the first of seven resolutions condemning the repression and abuses committed by the police and paramilitaries of the regime.
“We have institutions that work, a rule of law, a Constitution that works. That is why it is not right for this Permanent Council to set itself up as a kind of tribunal that no one has authorized or given powers to, to judge Nicaragua”, claimed Foreign Minister Denis Moncada Colindres, prior to the July 2018 vote, which ended with 21 votes in favor; three against; seven abstentions; and three absent.
“There was no consensus, there was an imposition. The interventionist policy of the U.S. The State Department was evident,” criticized the Nicaraguan diplomat.
“Interference” has been the term that Nicaraguan diplomats have used, time and again, to reject the resolutions that have arisen within the OAS, from 2018 to date.
The FSLN Government also used the alleged and “constant interfering attitudes” of the OAS, to request its withdrawal from the regional organization last November 19. The withdrawal would be effective until 2023, since the process lasts two years, so there is a possibility that Nicaragua will be suspended before that deadline.
The regime’s request came a week after a majority of the OAS foreign ministers declared that the past elections “were not free, fair or transparent and do not have democratic legitimacy”. At the same time, they instructed the Permanent Council to carry out an “immediate collective evaluation of the situation in Nicaragua, scheduled for Monday, November 29.
The government of Daniel Ortega and Rosario Murillo intends to put an end to a link between Nicaragua and the OAS that has existed for more than 73 years, of which the last 43 have been with the FSLN playing a leading or secondary role. The relationship between the red-and-black party and the regional organization arose after a “far too simple madness” in the words of García Márquez, and may end -as Peruvian Nobel Prize winner Mario Vargas Llosa calls them- with an order from the “sinister couple”.
This article was originally published in Spanish in Confidencial and translated by our staff