Since mid-April Nicaragua has been in the grip of a deep social and political crisis, with violent protests against Presidnt Daniel Ortega resulting in hundreds of deaths. Thousands of people have also been injured in the demonstrations that erupted over pension reforms and show no sign of abating. In this edition of Global Conversation Euronews' Oscar Valero spoke to President Ortega about the escalating crisis and the future for him and his country.
Oscar Valero, Euronews: You have been everything to the Nicaraguan people; a liberator, a leader of the masses and a historical figure. Now the people are out on the streets asking you to leave. Why is that?
Ortega: First of all, it's not the all the people, just a part of the population. We have had an opposition here all along, which was has obviosly taken part in elections. We had previous elections in which we participated and we did not get a majority. The majority was won by the opposition forces, and all of them united under the mandate of US politics.
Euronews: But we're talking about the current protests in Nicaragua. A recent poll shows that 79% of Nicaraguans want you to leave. It is at least, reasonable to doubt that the Nicaraguan people want you to remain in power.
Ortega: But I feel that there is a good part of the population... I can't give you the percentage of the surveys. I don't know of any accurate polls right now...
Euronews: Don't you think there is an outcry on the streets that might make you feel tempted to consult with the people, for example by calling an election?
Ortega: We had the elections recently, we recently had elections. And what we've had now is an attempted coup. That is what we have experienced, what the people have suffered. And I want to clarify for the Euronews' audience, because I read that it says "100 days, 90 days, 300 dead already', here in Nicaragua... well...
Euronews: The Nicaraguan Center for Human Rights says so, other organizations say 400.
Ortega: These figures are not true. The real figure of these clashes that have been taking place since April 18... these violent confrontations between the opposition and the government, the police and the Sandinista population, have resulted in 195 deaths. And of course if we add to this the average number of deaths that Nicaragua had before April 18, which is one of the lowest rates in the region, at two deaths per day... if we add this to two deaths per day, we'd have 180 more. What these human rights bodies do [is] they count them all together.
Euronews: Then according to you they're manipulating the figures?
Ortega: They count everything! How do you explain that during this period there were no deaths due to common crimes?
Euronews: That's not what they say. The organizations that talk about these deaths do not say that there are no common crimes, but that the number of deaths from the protests is between 300 and 400, which is a fairly high figure.
Ortega: They put it all together. Everyone who shows up as deceased is counted as deceased in the protests.
Euronews: What I don't understand is... for example, you’ve let the Nicaraguan Center for Human Rights get in to count the deaths. Why would they suddenly start manipulating the data?
Ortega: These are US-funded human rights centres, precisely to manipulate figures..
Euronews: What I'm wondering is, do you feel any responsibility as president of the country? Because, regardless of the figures we use, Do you consider that you have some responsibility for the fact that you have not been able to maintain the security of your citizens?
Ortega: The truth is that we are facing a powerful enemy that intervened militarily in Nicaragua, which is the United States…
Euronews: I find it interesting because you've mentioned several times that these protests are funded by the US, but I haven't seen any evidence yet. Do you have any evidence?
Ortega: Of course I do.
Euronews: Why haven't you shown it yet?
Ortega: There are the accounts that [show] the US agencies send [money] to these people through various US agencies. They have even said it publicly, they have announced the amount of millions they allocate to Nicaragua for "democracy", as they say, but they divert it to destabilise the country and encourage armed actions by gangs that have been committing crimes since 2007 when we took power.
Euronews: So according to you these are US-funded protests that have no connection to the people.
Ortegas: It has to do with part of the population that is affiliated to opposition forces that are even in parliament, that had an active part in the blockades.
Euronews: When you build up the idea of these protests as coming from terrorist organisations... it is hard to find a leader, there is no clear evidence of funding. This version does not hold up very well.
Ortega: If we proceeded to arrest the leaders, I can already imagine the reaction. Seeing what happened with what we have done so far, when we captured those who were directly participating in the terrorist actions, those who were participating... then the human rights organizations came out to speak for them, to defend them and to punish Nicaragua. And the US Congress came out with resolutions against Nicaragua.
Euronews: I would like to ask you about the paramilitaries or paramilitary police, because they have a role that is not very clear. Some, many witness speak of their collaboration with your security forces. And they are people who are accused of committing crimes.... for example, Amnesty International speaks about "extrajudicial executions". What is your view?
Ortega: Amnesty International has not presented a single piece of evidence. What is public is how right-wing paramilitaries have killed on the blockades, and have filmed and tortured citizens for being Sandinistas. They torture them, set them on fire and then dance around them, it's terrorism. And Amnesty International doesn't say a word about it, and the IACHR (Inter-American Commission for Human Rights) doesn't say anything when they grab a cop and burn him.
Euronews: There are many examples of these paramilitaries collaborating with the security forces; the BBC went to a Nicaraguan town and said they were collaborating with the police, without any kind of shame...
Ortega: No, here we have what is called the "voluntary" police.
Euronews: No, but these were masked people, because the volunteer police is not masked.
Ortega: The volunteer policemen in special operations are masked in normal time
Ortega: There are even countries in Latin America where judges are masked so that they don't get killed.
Euronews: So these people who defined themselves as paramilitaries were still volunteer police officers....
Ortega: That's right. They're volunteer cops.
Euronews: If you sit down at the table again to discuss, what are your red lines? Is leaving power a red line, something you could not accept? Is calling elections something you could not accept under any circumstances?
Ortega: First to consolidate peace, we are committed to doing justice.
Euronews: If peace were consolidated, would you be willing to call elections?
Ortega: Here we have constitutional norms that establish electoral periods, ours ends in 2021, when elections are held again in Nicaragua. In all the peace processes in which I have been involved in Central America, it was never considered that elections should be brought forward.
Euronews: Forgive me for asking you this again, but I would like an answer: are you not considering resigning at any point during the dialogue, or bringing forward elections? Because calling snap elections is also constitutional.
Ortega: In Central America this has not happened, in Colombia every time there is a peace process, elections are not brought forward, [even] with the blood that has been shed in Central America.
Euronews: So you aren’t even thinking about it.
Ortega: No, no. The opposition has told me, they have even told me that I have to leave now, they shouted that at me that on April 19. I think it would be a very serious precedent for the good of the country. If another government arrives then the [Sandinista National Liberation] Front would have the right to stop the country and ask the government to leave the following day. We would be setting a precedent. It would lead to a country in anarchy.
Euronews: So it's either you or anarchy. It's either you or chaos?
Ortega: Yes. To follow that path is to open the door to anarchy in the country. That is not convenient for the country. Stability that brings security. That is important for the region. Nicaragua is the “dam” of oganized crime and drug trafficking. A broken Nicaragua would mean that the region will be taken over by drug trafficking.
Euronews: In 2017 you won your third term in office and both your wife and some of your children began to hold important positions - why are your family and your government so intertwined?
Ortega: The only one who has ever held an important position is my partner as a Sandinista militant, I knew her as a Sandinista militant. I found her in the Sandinista camp and, as a Sandinista militant, she has the right to hold a position. And this is the first time she’s ever held it. My children are dedicated to television, to journalism, that's what they studied.
Euronews: Also oil.
Ortega: No, none of them, that's what our opponents say. Simply put, first of all we are not an oil-producing country, here the big corporations are the ones who run the oil industry. And then there has been a cooperation with Venezuela on oil that has nothing to do with a commercial operation.
Euronews: It's a relationship with oil.
Ortega: But that one hasn't been handled by my children.
Euronews: There is a sense that the differences between your family and your government are perhaps...
Ortega: The experience of the dynasty here in Nicaragua.... Somoza sent his son to West Point and made him chief of the guard, chief of the army. His other son was sent to the US to study and then appointed as member of the parliament...
Euronews: Mr. President, I understand that Somoza created a dynasty but we are talking about Nicaragua in 2018... and what I am asking you is about the unrest in the population, and you can’t deny that…
Ortega: There is no country in the world in which part of the population does not experience discontent.
Euronews: Yes, but not all over the world is there discontent because there are family members within the government, handling important issues, there are not so many cases.
Ortega: That is false.
Euronews: So you do not think there's a problem with the connections between so many official institutions and your family, your government.
Ortega: They're just on TV. What kind of crime is that? Don't they have the right to work? Don't they have the right to work in a newspaper? Ah, is it because they make a kind of journalism identified with the efforts we make for peace? Is that bad?
Euronews: Another of the complaints since 2011 is that you are clinging to power. For example, with the decision of the Constitutional Court that you could run again (for the presidency). Don’t you understand this might be one of the reasons for the unrest?
Ortega: Here in Nicaragua we start from the principle of a constitution that was born with the revolution of 1984. We arrived in 1979 and it was said that we would never become a government. W went in to elections in 1984, we won the elections; we went in to elections in 1990, we did not win the elections and we gave up the government. The first peaceful political transition in Nicaragua's history took place. From one goverment to other beacuse the history of Nicaragua is a history of war, where you could have two opposing governments one from León and the other from Granada.
Euronews: Why then try to run again if it was clear from your constitution according to the assembly that you could not run?
Ortega: In the 1984 constitution, the constitution was open for reelection
Euronews: But in 2011…
Ortega: In 2011, I simply used the resource that President Oscar Arias used to re-elect himself in Costa Rica. President Oscar Arias is one of the most democratic presidents in Latin America.
Euronews: Well, if I had Oscar Arias (here), I'd ask him the same.
Ortega: President Oscar Arias used this resource to be re-elected in Costa Rica and was re-elected. President Ávaro Uribe of Colombia also used this resource.
Euronews: And in both cases, in Costa Rica and especially in Colombia, I would ask the same question that I'm asking you.
Ortega: But if it is good for one, it is also good for another. These are principles that are open there.
Euronews: But my question is: is it good or bad to try to get re-elected when the constitution specifies that it is not in its spirit? Is it good or bad? Regardless of who does it.
Ortega: We found a constitutional way... and then the current constitution was reformed. The current constitution leaves the door open, it does not prevent re-election, because it was reformed.
Euronews: [it was reformed] So that you could be re-elected.
Ortega: So that anyone could.
Euronews: In this regard, from 2011 quite a few reputable organisations [The Economist, Freedom House] that study democracy in the country claim that democracy has deteriorated because of your alleged actions to try to stay in power; do you consider that Nicaragua is a democracy?
Ortega: It is a democracy because in the end it is the people who decide with their vote. The people cannot be prevented from deciding. Because in Europe there are systems of indefinite re-election. What is good for Europeans is bad for Latin Americans? I believe that these are universal principles, I believe that it is the people with their vote who should choose whether or not to re-elect a person. I tried to get reelected on 1990 and I lost.