CIVICUS speaks to the executive team of Coordinadora Civil, a national articulation platform formed in Nicaragua in 1998 for emergency relief assistance as Hurricane Mitch hit the region. Its mission later adapted to the changing needs of Nicaraguan civil society, and it is currently a coordination body encompassing NGOs, territorial networks, trade associations, youth groups and social organisations with a focus on human rights, gender, and cultural and generational diversity
1. The Interoceanic Canal seems to have become the main object of claims in Nicaragua. Is there free and open discussion on this and other issues affecting the population and how has the government reacted to protests?
In Nicaragua there is a lot of debate going on, that is promoted both by individual experts and by civil society organisations such as Coordinadora Civil, and social movements such as the National Council for the Defence of Land, Lake and Sovereignty, which brings together the peasant communities that would be displaced from their land if the Interoceanic Canal is built. Through different mechanisms these various actors have developed a wide variety of actions to inform citizens about the law, bring up discussion around the information disseminated by the Chinese company in charge of the project, HKND, and circulate studies and evaluations conducted by state agencies, academic institutions as well as local and international independent scientists.
Through different paths all this research has led us to the conclusion that using Lake Nicaragua ─ the largest freshwater reservoir in Central America ─ to build the canal is not feasible from any point of view. That is the reason why there have been close to 60 mobilisations across the country. Thousands of people have participated, mostly peasants from the communities at risk of expropriation and displacement as a result of the canal construction. Many of these protests, which in some cases cut access to roads and surrounded the capital city, were harshly repressed.
Along with mobilisation efforts, more than 30 appeals have been brought before the Supreme Court against Special Law No. 840 of 2013, which spells out the concession of the project, and a request for its derogation backed by thousands of signatures was submitted to the National Assembly.
2. More generally, how would you describe the environment for civil society organisations in Nicaragua specifically with reference to freedoms of association, expression and assembly?
In Nicaragua we have a political and institutional crisis due to the way in which power is exercised. This has placed the public officials leading the current administration above state institutions. This situation consolidated in 2014 with the adoption of Law No. 854 by which the Constitution was amended by allowing for continuous re-election. All the bases of democratic institutions have eventually been undermined or challenged: the rule of law, the cleanliness of elections, the independence of the branches of government, the honesty of judges, civil society’s advocacy capacity and citizen participation.
Regarding the freedom of association, the context does not favour autonomy, as critical independent CSOs suffer persecution. Mobilisation, direct work with the public, and the dissemination of the products of critical thought are penalised. The conditions are not conducive for civil society organisations to exercise a role as a social watchdog. There are no resources for them to do that kind of work and as a consequence, many organisations have chosen to keep a low profile, working quietly and becoming invisible in order to survive.
Conditions have worsened as of late as controls and restrictions have increased. We have less and less access to official information since there is no space for political dialogue and the government has banned its officials and state agencies from interacting with civil society organisations. We face constant harassment from government institutions such as the General Direction of Revenue (the tax agency) and the Nicaraguan Institute of Social Security, as well as from local governments. This situation is likely to worsen as the elections approach.
3. What are the main obstacles faced by human rights defenders and women human rights defenders in Nicaragua?
Human rights defenders face numerous challenges in Nicaragua. In fact, as noted by the latest Front Line Defenders report, at least two activists were killed in the country last year, in connection with their work for environmental rights, land rights, and indigenous or peasant communities’ rights.
In this hostile environment, women human rights defenders face even more severe obstacles, particularly when we demonstrate for women’s rights and gender equality. For several years we have suffered threats, harassment, judicial harassment, persecution and repression. In 2007 a lengthy investigation against nine women human rights defenders was opened following a complaint against them raised by an NGO linked to the Catholic Church, regarding their work in the field of sexual and reproductive rights. Among the accused were our colleagues Luisa Molina, who at the time held the honorary position of president of the federation bringing together the NGOs working on childhood issues; Ana María Pizarro, president of the organisation Sí Mujer; Mayra Sirias, who besides being persecuted also had her properties expropriated and her vehicle destroyed; and Violeta Delgado, from the Women’s Network. The investigation lasted two and a half years and was eventually closed for lack of substance, but in the meantime it caused enormous difficulties for these women and their families, and achieved its goal of obstructing and disrupting their work.
Similarly in the streets, whenever women mobilise for our rights, groups of government supporters or anti-riot police show up and they close the way to prevent us from exercising our right to peaceful protest.
4. Are there any initiatives by civil society to protect themselves or overcome these civic space restrictions?
There are a few specific initiatives. For example, many defenders and advocacy groups are organised in a national network that is articulated with the Mesoamerican Initiative of Women Human Rights Defenders, which includes some 700 activists in the region. There we share experiences and organise actions at the national and regional levels.
More generally, the work we do at Coordinadora Civil is also aimed at overcoming these restrictions, insofar as its activities seek to build citizenship by encouraging effective participation and mobilisation in the defence of rights. We do so by promoting critical analysis from a human rights perspective, by setting the public debate agenda, and by focusing on issues that are key for institution building and democratic governance: corruption, fairness, fiscal justice, the institutionalisation of participatory spaces, everyday participation by women and youths in decision-making.
5. What should the government of Nicaragua do in the short term to safeguard civic space and citizen rights?
First of all, it should restore a climate of respect for the rights and the tasks performed by civil society actors. The first thing that is required for that is the end of smear campaigns, judicial persecution, and institutional and police repression. Secondly, the government should convene an inclusive political dialogue leading to a process of consultation with civil society. As of today, there is nothing in the realm of civil society remotely similar to the consortium comprising government and big capital, the formation of which even required a reform of the Constitution. Finally, the government should open institutional spaces that allow for the coordination of actions aimed at strengthening transparency and institutions.
6. How can external actors, including regional organisations and international solidarity movements, support Nicaraguan civil society?
Basically, by valuing and actually using the available cooperation mechanisms, which we understand as peer solidarity actions. We are presently lacking most of the conditions required to do our work freely. The environment is unfavourable for civil society organisations in general, and for women’s organisations in particular. Since the system that oppresses us is not only political and social but also patriarchal, a specific form of solidarity that we aspire to is sorority, that is, the sisterhood among women’s causes around the world.