Stephen Sackur interviews Juan Sebastian Chamorro on the BBC's Hard Talk programme
August 14th 2018
Stephen Sackur : Welcome to Hardtalk, I’m Stephen Sackur. 4 decades ago, Daniel Ortega was a Latin American revolutionary at war with a corrupt autocracy. Now he stands accused of defending his own corrupt autocracy in the face of a popular revolt. Several hundred anti sandinista protesters are believed to have died in the last 4 months, but power remains firmly in Mr. Ortega’s hands.
My guest is Juan Sebastian Chamorro, a leader of the opposition alliance. Has the window of opportunity for change in Nicaragua already closed? Juan Sebastian Chamorro in Managua, welcome to Hardtalk
Juan Sebastian Chamorro : Thank you very much Sackur for having me on your program
Sackur : We’ve been watching events very closely for the last 4 months in Nicaragua, we have seen the street protests, we’ve seen the violence and we have seen thousands of nicaraguans demanding an end to the presidency of Daniel Ortega. But I’d be honest with you, it looks as though those protests have run out of steam, would you agree?
Chamorro : I would not agree. I think this is a process that is going to take time. Obviously you are talking about a dictator that has been in power for 11 years. 11 years of violations of rights, rights to mobilize, right to speak, right to vote, and the reason why we have this national revolt against this dictatorship is because people are really tired of this situation. But, obviously, you are talking about a dictator that has complete control of all branches of government, has complete control of the national assembly, the supreme court, of the police of the paramilitary, who are at his service, firing live ammunition to the protesters who are just defending themselves with slingshots and rocks. So, we never expected this to be an easy task, we’re talking about a government that has used repression in the crudest manner.. and you know it’s taken the time that it could take..
Sackur : So much in what you’ve just said, I’m sorry to butt in, but there’s so much in what you’ve just said, I need to sort of explore it a little bit.. Now, number 1, you use the language of Ortega being a dictator and in the recent past you’ve compared him directly with Anastacio Somoza, of coarse the infamous dictator who was toppled in 1979 in Nicaragua. Of course there is a fundamental difference, Daniel Ortega wins elections. He last won a thumping great majority in 2016. So this is an elected president, he is not a Somoza style dictator.
Chamorro : Well that is true, if you believe the electoral result were honest and clean.. but there is ample evidence that not only the elections of 2016, but all elections since 2008, muicipal elections, presidential elections and regional elections have been the result of an electoral fraud.Precisely, that’s the reason why people are protesting the streets, because we have been violated our right to vote. So legitimacy is kind of a big question mark here because, it’s true there were elections in 2016, but international observers denounced irregularities in the electoral process, or have been denouncing irregularities in electoral processes since 2008.. So to bring change here, we need to reform the electoral system as well, and thats the reason why the civic alliance for justice and democracy is demanding free and Clean elections next year.
Sackur : Well, we’ll get to your demands in a minute, but let’s look at what has happened in the last few months. April 18th was the key date when these protests really kicked off after the governments pension reforms produced this groundswell of opposition, which, of coarse, thousands took to the streets. But let’s look at what has happened since. No doubt there’ve been egregious examples of government paramilitaries using force against protesters, but in recent months we’ve also seen protesters using arms and homemade mortars against government forces, which does rather question what is happening on the streets..…whether this is simply a question of civilian protesters or actually a militarized opposition..
Chamorro : No, this has been people from all walks of life, workers, business leaders, peasants, students, who are putting barricades in the streets of Managua and other cities to defend themselves against these armed forces, these paramilitary forces that are in pick up trucks firing live ammunition..and as I said, these protesters have been defending themselves with slingshots and homemade mortars, that might be the only tool they are using to defend themselves.:
Sackur : Well, on the 13th of July, for example in a commune, Morrito, in Nicaragua, we had clashes in which 4 police officers were killed and just 1 protester, and this is figures coming from the Nicaraguan Center for Human Rights. So, it is clear that as this thing evolved, after April, and became more violent in July, it was not just one sided violence. Yes, there was plenty of violence coming from the paramilitaries and the people loyal to the government, but there was plenty of violence going the other way too.
Chamorro : Well I would not discard any information regarding people trying to defend themselves against the paramilitaries, so it’s probably that people on the other side were trying to defend themselves. Now with respect to the 4 officers who were assassinated, there’s no clear evidence who actually did it...but you are right, you are talking about 4 months of repression, and it is expected that some people might defend themselves..that is normal.. But the offensive movement from the paramilitaries, specially by mid July, was clearly almost a military operation against mostly unarmed people. That’s the reason why the barricades were erased in a matter of days.
Sackur : I put this to you, you’re an established economist, you’re a leader of the Civic Alliance, you come from an elite family, a very comfortable background in Nicaragua- but many of the people you’ve been encouraging to take to the streets are students, they’re poorer people, people worried about their social security benefits... They are the ones who are in the line of fire, yet you keep telling them to keep up the street protests, to keep up the street action. Do you think that is really a responsible position for you to take given what is happening on the streets.
Chamorro : Absolutely, it is, that’s the only reason and the only way we can put pressure. I, myself, have been on the streets. I was on the streets yesterday in a protest, and I will be on Wednesday. I mean you have to understand that this is a national revolt by all kinds of people, not only students and people from the working sector. This is an entire country trying to demand a change. One thing that has been fundamental in our call for protests, is that they have to be peaceful. They have to be in the most peaceful manner to express our demands to bring a change to the country, try to bring democracy. So, I think it’s completely responsible, the civil resistance, the marches, the strikes, all kinds of protest, as long as they are peaceful.. to express the demand for change. I think they are absolutely valid and coherent with a strategy of bringing pressure to the government, to simply accept what is natural in most countries in the world , and that is having free elections.
Sackur : I want to get to your political platform and proposals in just a second, but one last thought on the nature of the clashes right now, one very interesting letter in the Guardian newspaper in the UK, sent to the paper from a resident of Masaya in Nicaragua saying this- He’s saying that he had witnessed public buildings and the houses of government supporters being burned down by protesters, shops being ransacked, businesses and banks and schools being closed because protesters had taken over the town. He said the main secondary school for more than 3,000 pupils was burnt to the ground, the police station was put under siege -are you now, here on Hardtalk prepared to condemn what some of the protesters out on the streets in your namer actually doing?
Chamorro : Absolutely. We are condemning any kind of violence, whoever this violence comes from. This is not the solution to our problems. You see we are talking about a president, Ortega, who is very strong on arms. So it completely doesn’t make any sense at all to conduct activities, armed activities, or violent actions, to overthrow a president who has demonstrated that he’s strong with arms. Our cause is a peaceful cause. We are condemning any kind of death. If, for example, the deaths of these four officers is clarified, we will be the first to condemn. Because we believe that the death, the loss of life of Nicaraguans, regardless of their position — whether they are police officers, whether they are protesters — should not occur in a country like Nicaragua for the reasons that we are asking. We are just asking for freedom, for democracy, for a change. And not a single life should be lost as a result of these protests.
Sackur : I’ll tell you what this reminds me of. It reminds me of the situation in Venezuela over the last 12, 18 months. We have seen a series of popular protests against the Maduro government. At times thousands and thousands of Venezuelans on the streets. Violence. Loss of life, particularly among civilians. And at times a feeling that they were getting close to bringing the government down. But of course they never did. And the reason they didn’t is the security forces — including the police, the paramilitaries, and, of course, ultimately the armed forces, the army — stayed loyal to Maduro. And all the indications are that there is that same loyalty from the security forces to the government of Daniel Ortega. And if that’s true you cannot win.
Chamorro : Well, that’s relatively true. In the first case, you are right that the armed forces, the military, were loyal to Maduro. In the case of Nicaragua, the army had decided to stay neutral. Not to intervene. Not to go to the streets. So that’s one difference. The second one is that Venezuela is a rich country in resources — poorly managed obviously — but it’s a rich country in oil. Nicaragua doesn’t have any natural resource that would allow the government to stay afloat with a huge amount of resources. That’s another difference.The third difference is that we’re entering into the fourth month of protests already and the protests continue. They are large. They are all over the place. And the fourth difference is that in Nicaragua we have almost twice as much dead people as in Venezuela. And remember that Nicaragua is only a 6 million people country. Much smaller country than Venezuela.
Sackur : Understood. But one other similarity you have with Venezuela is that the opposition is not coherent, not united, and doesn’t have a simple message. Because if you look at your own message, you have talked about insurrection. You have compared Ortega to Somoza. You’ve said that, you know, “we need to rid ourselves of this dictator.” But then many of the most prominent figures in the opposition are instead just saying that we need a promise that we’re going to get new elections sometime next year. And then you’ve got the Catholic church involved. And they’re calling on both sides to sort of ramp down the rhetoric and to start talking seriously to each other in a more moderate way. So Nicaraguan people looking at all of this have no real idea of what the opposition’s objectives are. Can you help me?
Chamorro: No, I think, Sackur, that what I’m saying is that we need a change, that Ortega is a dictator. I think everybody is clear about it by the way he behaves. And that the only way that we can bring change here is through a democratic process. Free elections. And that’s precisely the position of the Civic Alliance. And that’s precisely the position of so many people. That’s the reason why we haven’t seen actually combats, people defending and killing with heavy ammunition on the protestors’ side. We, as Nicaraguans, believe in a democratic solution in elections. I don’t see this discrepancy or differences between opinions from my colleagues at the Alliance or even the opposition. I think it’s overall, I believe that the only way we can provoke a change is to bring pressure, to bring pressure on the protests, in the streets. For the government to sit at the table of the national dialogue that has been suspended since the end of June. And try to convince the government that the only solution here is to continue the national dialogue and to bring anticipated elections in 2019. I think that’s the general demand from the Nicaraguan people.
Sackur : Well, you keep saying the “Nicaraguan people” as though they were united behind your demands, but of course they’re not. We all see the demonstrations mounted by the Sandinistas. The tens of thousands waving the Sandinista flag, talking about the achievements of Ortega. After all, you’ve had 4% annual economic growth for several years. You have actually the least crime-ridden and the most stable society in Central America. Compared with some of your neighbors, Nicaragua has been a relative success in recent years. And Daniel Ortega has made a point of working with the business community. You put all of that together and actually Ortega’s achievements are not inconsiderable. And many people in Nicaragua think it’s better he stay in power rather than have you guys muck things up.
Chamorro : Well, I think you’re right in the sense that the economic situation was moving relatively well. But everything changed in April, Sackur. We have a completely different country now. We have the economy in ruins. We have entire sectors (ruined), like tourism. 1 million people came from abroad. Many from the UK and elsewhere to visit Nicaragua.
Sackur : But with respect that’s in many ways your fault. You’re the one who told the protestors to put the barricades up, which has ruined transportation links inside Nicaragua. You’re the one who has consistently called for people to take to the streets, so that we see all of these images on our TV screens of violence and instability in Nicaragua. Who can you blame but yourselves for the fact that international investors and tourists don’t want to go to Nicaragua?
Chamorro : Listen, Sackur. We didn’t ask anybody to put barricades in the streets. The Civic Alliance for Justice and Democracy was an organization formed after the revolt. So in that case I think that probably you need more information about the process. The Civil Alliance was formed after the revolt as a counterpart trying to find a solution. We never asked people to defend themselves against the paramilitary. They themselves did it because they saw people being killed in the streets of Managua and elsewhere. The situation of the barricades, the roadblocks. Those responsible for the roadblocks is the repression from the occurred from the Ortega government. This was a completely spontaneous movement from all cities of Nicaragua, so the economic crisis that we’re suffering is not the result of someone asking the people to put barricades in the streets. Those responsible for the economic crisis — the more than 200,000 jobs that have been lost in the last four months — is the repression of Ortega. It cannot be blamed on the protestors. The protestors were killed from Day 1. People have the right to go to the streets and try to defend the right not to be killed. So the only responsible for the crisis we’re suffering is the government of Ortega, not the people who are defending their rights in the streets.
Sackur : Do you think it’s wise for you to have made such a public call for the United States to expand its sanctions on Nicaragua? It revives so many memories of U.S. interference in Nicaraguan affairs going back to the late 70s and 80s. And the Reagan administration’s support for the Contras. Many Nicaraguans, the last thing they want to see is the U.S. trying to dictate things in your country. But yet you seem to be welcoming it.
Chamorro : Well, I haven’t stated that we are in favor of any sanctions to the people of Nicaragua.
Sackur : Well, let us just be clear about this. You have repeatedly called for more U.S intervention in Nicaragua. You want the targeted sanctions expanded to more members of Ortega’s family. You say that the IMF should stop giving any assistance to Nicaragua for the time being because it’s only going to help the Ortega regime. Everything you say, number 1, invites more U.S. intervention and actually will do more damage to the Nicaraguan economy.
Chamorro : And I agree. That’s the reason we haven’t issued any statement calling for more sanctions or the IMF not lending money.
Sackur : Well, hang on. I have a quote from you, Juan Sebastian Chamorro, saying “additional U.S. sanctions would be a great step in the right direction.” Did you not say that? You’re certainly quoted in the media as saying it.
Chamorro : Well, that’s a big difference (from) saying “you are asking for those sanctions.” When you are sanctioning individuals, individuals who are responsible for repression, that’s a different matter. What we haven’t said is that we are in favor of general sanctions against people of Nicaragua. Like cutting loans and things like that which will help social policy like health and education. Obviously we are not in favor of those types of sanctions. But we are for sanctions for individuals who are responsible for the repression, for the violations of human rights. Obviously we are in favor. And they don’t affect the people in Nicaragua in general.
Sackur : I sense from your answers that you know this is very sensitive territory for any Nicaraguan. So I put just one more specific to you. The White House on July 30th issued a statement saying, “The U.S. has announced $1.5 million to add to an ongoing $30 million program to support ‘freedom and democracy’ in Nicaragua, including civil society, human rights groups, independent media. Are you receiving American money?
Chamorro : Not of this part of the 1.5 million. Obviously not. Because this was an announcement that was made a month ago. The think tank that I’m the general director of has received in the past funds from different organizations who conduct economic analysis and so on.
Sackur: So you get money direct from the U.S. government because Daniel Ortega characterizes you and others leading the Civic Alliance as people aiding and abetting terrorism using foreign funds. And when you tell me that, “Yes,” that you have had some American money, I guess Ortega will say to his people that he has a point.
Chamorro : No, absolutely not. Because we are, for example, been working for 10 years conducting economic studies and we have received grants from different governments. That is something normal that a think tank in Nicaragua will do. You know we have been working on economic analysis. On the rate of return on education, health, social security. And we have received funds. We have been very public about it. Not only from the American government but also from the Swedes, from the Germans, from the private sector. That’s what NGOs do for a living: try to get programs and try to conduct economic studies. What the president is trying to do is to say that these funds are using for arming and organizing coup d’etats and things like that, which are obviously not true.
Sackur : We are almost out of time. From the late 1970s through the 1980s, we saw a bitter, horrible, protracted civil war in Nicaragua. Is is possible there will be another civil war in NIcaragua?
Chamorro : I hope not. I hope for this time, for the first time in 200 years of independence, we will pursue a democratic process for this to be solved. And that’s the reason why the Civic Alliance for Alliance and Justice has sat at this table of the national dialogue mediated with the Catholic church. If President Ortega wants to find a peaceful and democratic solution, I think he has still — despite the 400 people being assassinated and so on — the opportunity to try to find a solution to the problem.
Sackur : Juan Sebastian Chamorro, we have to end there, but thanks for joining me from Managua.