This article was written for e-CIVICUS no. 473, the weekly CIVICUS newsletter, and is based on analysis by the Civil Society Index and Civil Society Watch programmes. It follows a field visit by CIVICUS to Nicaragua in January 2010.
Daniel Ortega remains an unavoidably contentious figure in Latin American politics. Known most widely outside of the region as leader of the armed struggle which brought about the end of the Somoza dictatorship in July 1979, his political reincarnation as a democratically elected leader in 2006, for many at the time, pointed to the latest shift towards the left in Latin America. Along with a manifesto for stemming the tide of poverty and inequality, however, came increasingly divisive rhetoric and alleged fraud in the 2008 mayoral and local elections. This was followed by a Supreme Court decision to allow Ortega to stand for re-election in 2011, and fears have grown of a return to the caudillismo of dominant leaders which has plagued Nicaragua for many years in the past. What, in such a politically charged environment, are the prospects for cooperation and collaboration between government and civil society?
The impact of the political situation on civil society’s work in Nicaragua has been noticeable. In recent months, reports have emerged of motivated prosecutions against dissenting activists, the marginalisation of organisations lobbying for greater accountability, harassment of media groups and the directing of federal funds away from independent civil society organisations (CSOs) and towards ‘GONGOS’ (Government Organised NGOs). Perhaps most notable – from an international perspective – is the implementation of a draft law on international cooperation, which now places restrictions on local CSOs accessing support from abroad.
Such developments, though, are far from uncommon across the region. Recent years have witnessed the election of a series of radical leftist leaders, each on a different but not entirely unique platform; Rafael Correa in Ecuador, Evo Morales in Bolivia and, most notably, Hugo Chavez in Venezuela. With Raul Castro’s Cuba showing signs only of gradual change (‘evolution revolution’, if you will), the axis of the so-called Bolivarian Revolution seems strong, and not least in the wake of the global economic crisis.
But in each of these situations, the impact of revolutionary politics on civil society asks fundamental questions about the way we think about ‘civil society’. In Bolivia, civil society reached remarkable levels of polarisation between the largely indigenous social movements backing the Morales revolution, and those civil society organisations rooted in separatist Santa Cruz. In Venezuela, the much-reported crackdown on media and civil society comes, of course, only in the context of unprecedented levels of civic engagement in los circulos bolivarianos, the Chavez-backed Bolivarian Circles. One person’s civic activist becomes another’s enemy of the state.
But the features common to these political landscapes bring with them contradictions which can be highly uncomfortable for those who would choose to lend support. In one corner lies the promise, however utopian, of social justice. In the other, however, lie the most basic of civic rights: freedom of expression, freedom of assembly and freedom of association. And in both corners stand those who would co-opt and use the idea of civil society: either endorsing it as an independent (though persecuted) last bastion of opposition to an imminent dictatorship or, alternatively, denouncing it as the interfering puppetry of foreign powers and elitist business interests. Not all these allegations, of course, are without foundation. But when elephants fight, as they say, the grass suffers – and it is often civil society organisations who are the first to take the hit as the rhetoric surges and their national space becomes politicised.
So how, then, should interventions be targeted when civic space – and even the very concept of civil society – becomes a political weapon?
One approach pursued by CIVICUS in these nuanced contexts has been to support knowledge generation about civil society, and to make sure that an empirical assessment of civil society exists in the public domain as a foundation for action. The CIVICUS Civil Society Index, a participatory action research project designed to provide just such an assessment, is now being implemented for the first time in Nicaragua by the Red Nicaraguense por la Democracia y el Desarrollo Local (RNDDL), one of two local partner organisations. Drawing on quantitative data generated from three surveys with the population, organisations and external stakeholders, as well as a series of in-depth case studies, the Civil Society Index project provides both a quantitative and qualitative analysis and picture of the state of civil society. The final results of the Index are due in Nicaragua in early 2010, and will help inform action plans by civil society.
CIVICUS is also making concerted efforts in the Latin American region to monitor emerging threats to civil society through the Early Warning System (EWS) formulated by CIVICUS partners and its Civil Society Watch (CSW) programme. Only last week, CIVICUS undertook a fact-finding mission to Nicaragua with the support of RNDDL and CIVICUS’ other member in the country, the Coordinadora Civil. Anabel Cruz, who headed the mission and is currently Chair of CIVICUS’ Board, noted that despite many of the areas of concern that emerged from the mission, “talks with key officials [had] been open and positive”.
Supporting civil society to engage with government as a partner in the development of the nation is a complex challenge and one which, in Nicaragua, will inevitably be fraught with difficulties. Since the 1990s, when a number of former Sandinista revolutionaries drifted towards social movements, NGOs have often struggled to assert their own autonomy and independence from the political environment. In 2004, a law on Citizen Participation was passed in Nicaragua, institutionalising space and raising hope for productive interaction with government. But following a few initial years of genuine engagement on social policy, much of this growth has been cut back amidst a rapidly deteriorating environment in which civil society activists fear that government now sees them as an enemy rather than a partner. Frustration levels, on both sides, are understandably high.
Nevertheless, as Anabel Cruz seemed to recognise, in calling on the “Government of Nicaragua to consider civil society as partners in national development”, the path away from the polarisation and politicisation of civic space offers the best hope not only for a healthy independent civil society, but also for an active citizenry amenable to and supportive of the politics of Latin America’s left.
Daniel Ortega once allegedly explained the armed roots of the Nicaraguan Revolution by commenting that “we grew up in a situation where we didn’t know what freedom or justice were, and therefore we didn’t know what democracy was”. Now, in working closely with the civil society sector as a true partner in national development, Ortega could make sure that the children of tomorrow’s Nicaragua cannot say the same.