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Extended Conversation with Nicaraguan Government Minister Paul Oquist on Escalating Crisis

Web ExclusiveJune 19, 2018
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The political crisis in Nicaragua is intensifying. More than 178 people have been killed since widespread demonstrations to oust Nicaraguan President Daniel Ortega began in mid-April, when his government announced plans to overhaul and slash social security. We speak with Paul Oquist, a senior minister for national policy in the Nicaraguan government.

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: This is Democracy Now!, democracynow.org, The War and Peace Report. I’m Amy Goodman, with Juan González.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: Well, the political crisis in Nicaragua is intensifying. More than 178 people have been killed since widespread demonstrations to oust Nicaraguan President Daniel Ortega began in mid-April, when his government announced plans to overhaul and slash social security.

AMY GOODMAN: We continue our conversation with Paul Oquist. He’s a senior minister for national policy in the Nicaraguan government. So, these numbers are, to say the least, horrifying—178—I think all sides would agree with that—people killed, if that’s the number. Paul Oquist, how many, would you say, do you believe, the Nicaraguan government, Daniel Ortega’s forces, killed, of that number, around 178?

PAUL OQUIST: I believe that the Nicaraguan authorities, assisted by the forensic experts of the Inter-American Council on Human Rights, should do a serious judicial forensic study, case by case, and adjudicate responsibilities, and those responsibilities, if they lead to prosecution, that should take place, fall where the chips may. And that’s the way to find out what’s happening here.

AMY GOODMAN: Should the—

PAUL OQUIST: In a maze of false news, of black propaganda, of massive, daily barrage of false news, you can’t elucidate this without a serious investigation. And I would not hazard to go around making wild guesses, when what has already been requested can be undertaken. But this should be undertaken in an environment of peace and security. Everyone wants justice, and justice will be done, but you have to give justice a chance. You have to give peace a chance.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: Well, Paul—

PAUL OQUIST: And that, with the continued violence, the continued shows, like this in Masaya, which is a media show—the police are not hunkered down in their barracks, as The Washington Post said this morning. The police are under siege in Masaya by armed, non-civic movement people of the opposition.

You need some balance here, too, to be able to really understand the situation and understand the absolute need for this dialogue process to lead to peace, and the formation of peace committees throughout the country, so that, at the local level, agreements can be made also, and that those agreements can lead to the local authorities of all—and all of the people coming up and getting rid of the barricades, which is a form of coercion, the barricades, the people not being able to go to work, people not being able to put their crops to market. And they’re violently enforced. They’re violently enforced.

So, we need to get out of this spiral of violence, out of this spiral of violence on both sides. And the way to do that is through the dialogue. The government is willing, achieving conditions of peace, to entertain anything that they want to put on the table. Institutional reforms can be put on the table, and they will be discussed, considered. And what we need are agreements agreeable to both sides.

One of the great demands has been a reform of the Supreme Electoral Council. That’s already been agreed to. It’s been agreed to with the OAS, and the OAS work on the electoral process contemplates that. The head of the Electoral Council, which was a demand, has already resigned. So steps are being taken in that direction. But every time we go two steps forward, violent events take shape and show stunts like this in Masaya take shape, that are trying to reinforce the coup d’état position, violently overthrow the government. That is not a solution for Nicaraguan society.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: Well, Paul Oquist, I wanted to ask you—we are familiar on this show with many of the examples of what I would call astroturf revolutions. Basically, the way to overthrow a government these days is not necessarily with a direct coup but to foment a popular rebellion. We saw it in Venezuela. We saw it in the Ukraine. We’ve seen it in a variety of places around the world.

PAUL OQUIST: Georgia, Kyrgyzstan, Arab Spring.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: And so, now, the issue, in my mind, as I asked you before—you mentioned one group, the MRS, that you believe is actually behind a violent attempt to overthrow the government. Do you see—

PAUL OQUIST: There’s others also, but I’m just saying—I’m just saying that—

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: No, but I want to ask you about that.

PAUL OQUIST: —the electoral route isn’t something that works there.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: Can you identify—can you identify some of the other groups that you believe are actually spearheading what appears to be a popular—or what the international press is reporting as a popular rebellion but is actually an attempt to instigate a coup against the Ortega government?

PAUL OQUIST: There is a gentleman named Félix Maradiaga, who is U.S.-financed, who has had a center for studies that has advocated the abolition of the army in Nicaragua for a long time and who recently has been implicated with a criminal gang that is accused of murders. It’s accused of kidnappings. It’s accused of arson. And he has been the mentor of that group. So, criminal groups have been instrumentalized by the opposition, and, quite obviously, the criminal element in the society is having a heyday within the anarchical conditions. And the Nicaraguan people are suffering from that, as well.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: What about foreign intervention? Do you see any evidence of the Trump administration or others in the international community trying to utilize and destabilize the government?

PAUL OQUIST: Well, I would say that the statement made by the embassy in Managua, the State Department and the Senate Foreign Relations Committee was very positive, because it was very clear that the way out of this is a dialogue and a mutually agreeable solution and no imposition of one side upon the other. Pope Francis also has spoken to that. There cannot be an imposition of one side on the other here. That will not lead to peace.

What we need is genuine peace for a badly wounded society to heal, and heal through national reconciliation and try to salvage our economy. It’s going to be a big job. You know, it took over a decade to get out of the image of Nicaragua as a violent society from the 1980s. But now—you know, foreign direct investment had increased five times. Tourism was over a million per year and on the—over 500,000, rather, a year—over a million dollars a year, and on the rise—a billion dollars, I mean, and on the rise. And the society had peace for 11 years. To get back to salvage what we can of that is going to be very difficult in these circumstances where Nicaragua now is tagged as a violent society also. But we cannot do that unless we have national peace and reconciliation.

AMY GOODMAN: Let me turn to former senior Sandinista government official Alejandro Bendaña, who spoke earlier on Democracy Now!

PAUL OQUIST: On your show, yeah.

AMY GOODMAN: Served as the Nicaraguan ambassador to the United Nations, as well as secretary general of the Nicaraguan Foreign Ministry during the Sandinista government in Nicaragua from ’79 to ’90.

ALEJANDRO BENDAÑA: What we now have, in the last 10 days, is a new—and we need to denounce this clearly—a negotiation that is taking place in Washington between Ortega and the United States government, that is being mediated by the Organization of American States Secretary General Luis Almagro, to try to ease Ortega out of office. Now, that would be OK if he left tomorrow. But the problem is that negotiation means he wants to go through constitutional changes, electoral changes and an eventual election. And we’d be talking about a year, year and a half. So, what we’re—and that’s too long, when two or three or four people are getting killed and gunned down every day. In addition to that, those are negotiations that, secondly, should be taking place in Washington, and, third, cannot signify impunity for Ortega, which was the—which is the first thing he’s putting on the table. So, he has to go. And then we can talk about a provisional arrangement for a transition government. But this negotiations means more death and destruction.

AMY GOODMAN: So that’s former senior Sandinista government official Alejandro Bendaña.

PAUL OQUIST: Well, thank you very much for confirming everything I’m saying. He’s calling for Ortega leaving tomorrow. He’s against constitutional changes. He’s against an electoral process, because that would go into next year to do a reform. He’s against the OAS aiding in this electoral reform so we can guarantee that it’s acceptable to everyone.

And the image you had on the side was great. Thank you very much for that. It was Radio Ya burning, the principal pro-government radio station being burned by the civic—so-called civic, nonviolent opposition, burning the principal pro-government radio station in the country, and Alejandro Bendaña saying they should leave tomorrow. Coup d’état. No process, no dialogue, no peaceful outcome. And talk about a provisional government. Based on whom? Based on what? Let the Nicaraguan people decide. That’s the democratic way, that’s the institutional way. And that’s the only way peace can be achieved in Nicaragua. And with that, I will finish.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: I wanted to ask you about the—some of the issues that actually sparked the original—

PAUL OQUIST: No, I finished there. I finished there.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: You don’t want—

PAUL OQUIST: I gave a closing statement there.

AMY GOODMAN: Well, just answer Juan’s question.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: Yeah, the issue of the slashing of social security benefits that actually started the revolt, the popular revolt. There’s the criticism of the Ortega government that it’s adopting many neoliberal policies, when people had hopes that it would actually move forward.

PAUL OQUIST: In how many countries is social security reform an issue? In how many countries is social security underfinanced? Nicaraguan social security gives medical care. In how many countries is—in the second-poorest country in Latin America and the Caribbean, Nicaragua has a social security system with medical care, including medicine—medicine—including for chronic patients, high blood pressure, diabetics, get their medicine for free. And there is a universal, free healthcare system, the public healthcare system. That was one of the first measures undertaken by President Ortega when he took office.

Tremendous redistributive impact. Extreme poverty was 17 percent in 2005. It went down to 14 percent in 2009. In 2014, it was 8 percent, and then it dropped to 6 percent through these redistributive policies, with health being a very important one, and free, universal public education, as well. And these figures of the reduction of poverty are validated by United Nations organizations also.

Social security—whoever takes over the government is going to have to face not bankrupting social security. You can look at the IMF’s reports, and what the IMF has been asking Nicaragua is, “You need to reform your social security so that it doesn’t go bankrupt.” It’s a very tough issue. It’s a very tough issue. And as we know, in the whole world, it’s a very explosive issue. And it proved to be so in Nicaragua, which shouldn’t surprise us.

AMY GOODMAN: And the protests led to President Ortega moving back on this issue of austerity, of reform of social security.

PAUL OQUIST: Oh, he rescinded it. He rescinded it. The measure taken by the board of directors of the Social Security Administration was rescinded by the executive branch of government. Thank you very much for the invitation.

AMY GOODMAN: I just have a last question.

PAUL OQUIST: No, no. The last question was the last question.

AMY GOODMAN: With that, Paul Oquist got out of his chair and ended the interview. Paul Oquist, senior minister for national policy in the Nicaraguan government of President Daniel Ortega. To see Part 1 of our discussion, you can go to democracynow.org. I’m Amy Goodman, with Juan González. Thanks so much for joining us.

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