USA praises role of Nicaraguan bishops in country’s crisis

A senior advisor to the U.S. State Department is calling on the Catholic bishops of Nicaragua to find a way to once again play a part in the ongoing talks to help the Central American country find a way out of its current political and economic crisis.

“I can’t speak highly enough for the role of the Catholic bishops in Nicaragua and the Vatican, the nuncio, as well,” said Ambassador Todd Robinson, Senior Adviser for Central America of the U.S State Department.

The Church, Robinson said, has been clear in their commitment to reaching a peaceful political settlement in Nicaragua, working not only with the opposition but with all the involved parties.

The situation in the country began to unravel last April, when a series of student-led protests saw hundreds killed in clashes with security forces and pro-government militias.

Despite the attempts from President Daniel Ortega to portray the crisis as a U.S.-led revolt, according to Robinson “we have to understand the point that this is not the United States versus Nicaragua.”

In fact, most of the students were former members of Ortega’s Sandinista Party who took to the streets in solidarity with the elderly, who were protesting a social security reform that would have heavily affected them.

Robinson’s comments came on Thursday during a teleconference that included Crux. According to him, the U.S. administration “applauds” the Catholic bishops for their stance since the crisis began, including the fact that they opened churches to serve as shelters and hospitals during the protests.

“We hope that [the bishops] will find a mechanism to join the opposition and others to get back to the negotiating table because we think they have a strong and important role to play,” he said.

Robinson serves as Senior Adviser for Central America in the Bureau of Western Hemisphere Affairs in Washington, D.C. Before this, he was appointed Charge d’affaires at the U.S. embassy in Caracas, Venezuela, but he was only there from December 18, 2017 to May 22, 2018, when he was expelled by President Nicolas Maduro. During Thursday’s briefing, he refused to answer questions regarding the ongoing crisis in Venezuela.

The ambassador said that the U.S. is working with many countries in the West and also Asia to support an international approach that would help the people of Nicaragua find a “peaceful, democratic and comprehensive solution to this current crisis.”

Much like the bishops and the opposition, the U.S. will continue to push for early, free and fair elections and full respect for human rights, as the U.S. government sees this as the only viable path to democracy and sustainable economic development in Nicaragua.

“Yet the Ortega regime continues to choose repression and violence over human rights and the democratic yearnings of the Nicaraguan people,” Robinson said.

According to the ambassador, regardless of the involvement of the international community, the ultimate resolution of the crisis lies with the people of Nicaragua and their push for credible efforts to develop a national dialogue.

“A lasting solution to the crisis can only be achieved by political action that involves all stakeholders in Nicaraguan society,” he said. Nevertheless, he added the United States will continue to use all the diplomatic and economic tools at its disposal to promote and support Nicaragua’s rule of law and democratic reform.

Ortega released around 100 prisoners last week, but put them under house arrest. “That is simply not enough,” Robinson said.

“We are urging the Ortega regime to negotiate in good faith and to take concrete actions now to restore democracy by ceasing its repression, releasing arbitrarily detained persons, and agreeing to hold early free and fair elections,” he continued. “And we’re going to push the idea that in those elections we look for new leaders in Nicaragua. Leaders that don’t include Ortega and [Vice-president Rosario] Murillo.”

Below is a full rush transcript of the press conference by Ambassador Todd Robinson, Senior Advisor for Central America , Bureau of Western Hemisphere Affairs.

Ambassador Robinson: The United States is working with countries throughout the Western Hemisphere, Europe and Asia to support an international approach to helping the Nicaraguan people find a peaceful, democratic and comprehensive solution to its current crisis. Early, free and fair elections and full respect for human rights is the only viable path to democracy and sustainable economic development in the country. Yet the Ortega regime continues to choose repression and violence over human rights and the democratic yearnings of the Nicaraguan people.

The United States has sanctioned Nicaraguan government officials for their role in serious human rights abuses, undermining democratic processes or institutions, or for committing corruption. We have also revoked visas and implemented visa restrictions for individuals involved in the repression of peaceful protesters, restricted invitations to the government of Nicaragua for U.S.-led international events, and discouraged financing of the oppressive regime by international financial institutions.

We also continue to support Nicaraguan civil society to document human rights violations and advocate for greater accountability of the Ortega regime in international and regional fora.

President Ortega is attempting to frame this conflict as a classic ideological struggle between Nicaragua and the United States. This is simply not the case. Daniel Ortega’s conflict is with the Nicaraguan people and their desire to live in democracy and freedom. The United States stands with all Nicaraguans across the political spectrum and many countries throughout the world who are calling for respect for human rights, fundamental freedoms and rule of law.

The ultimate resolution of the crisis lies with Nicaraguans. The United States strongly supports all credible efforts to develop a national dialogue to resolve the crisis. While the United States and the international community have a role to play, a lasting solution to the crisis can only be achieved by political action that involves all stakeholders in Nicaraguan society.

The United States will continue to use all diplomatic and economic tools at its disposal to promote and support Nicaragua’s rule of law and democratic reform.

Question: I wanted to know if all the efforts and all the dialogue between the Nicaraguan people, and will the U.S. intervene and have a responsibility to protect the populations of Nicaragua?

Ambassador Robinson: We’re going to remain focused on making sure the efforts to dialogue don’t fail. We’re going to continue to work with our partners in the international community to support the people, those who are taking part in the negotiation efforts. We’re going to work with the opposition, both in Nicaragua and in the United States to give them all the tools and all the space necessary to make the really important decisions they need to make to deliver democracy to the people. we’re going to take our lead from frankly the Nicaraguan opposition and the people that are closely involved in the negotiations. When we have spoken to them, they have made clear that there are a number of things that the Ortega regime can do to show that they are serious about this negotiating process.

Number one, clearly, they have to release the political prisoners. They’re holding between 800 and a thousand political prisoners. Many of them are having health care, they’re not being given sufficient health care while they’re being held. We know, we saw last week the regime release about 100 people, but they released them to house arrest. That’s simply not good enough.

We are urging the Ortega regime to negotiate in good faith and to take concrete actions now to restore democracy by ceasing its repression, releasing arbitrarily detained persons, and agreeing to hold early free and fair elections. And we’re going to push the idea that in those elections we look for new leaders in Nicaragua. Leaders that don’t include Ortega and Murillo.

Question: Do the actions of the U.S. mean that a new axis of evil has appeared in Latin America comprising Venezuela, Cuba and Nicaragua?

Ambassador Robinson: I would answer that question this way. Frankly, I will let others categorize where these countries are, but they are challenges in the hemisphere. What happens in these countries influences what happens in the hemisphere.

Nicaragua happens to be one of those challenges, and we’ve already seen spillover effects in countries like Panama and Costa Rica, two countries that have been generous in their support for Nicaraguans that have gotten out of Nicaragua. The challenge of Nicaragua is real, and we’re going to work with our partners to help them and help the people of Nicaragua try to resolve it.

Question: I was in Nicaragua in late November where I heard from people over and over again that the Catholic Church and the bishops played a key role in making sure that the violence didn’t escalate even more than it did. However, we hear that they are not going to be a part of the dialogue this time around. Do you have any opinion on that?

Ambassador Robinson: Well, I’ve got a couple of opinions on that. First, I can’t speak highly enough for the role of the Catholic bishops in Nicaragua and the Vatican, the Nuncio as well. They have been clear in their determination to reach a peaceful political settlement in Nicaragua, working with the opposition. And not just the opposition. I think we have to understand the point that this is not the United States versus Nicaragua. The people who were killed in the protest in April were largely students who were part of the Sandinista Party. These are not people that were identified solely as opposition. And I think the fact that the Catholic Church and the bishops took the decision to try to protect them in their installations and at the university was a real bold, courageous step. We applaud them for it. We hope that they will find a mechanism to join the opposition and others to get back to the negotiating table because we think they have a strong role to play and an important role to play.

Question: First I’d like to know if there are more sanctions coming from the U.S.? And secondly, since you were before in Venezuela and the situation in Nicaragua has been compared, I’d like to know how do you compare the situation now in Nicaragua to the situation that was in Venezuela in the past.

Ambassador Robinson: You’re welcome. It won’t surprise you to learn that I’m largely going to focus on Nicaragua in this call. Obviously there are some comparisons you can make. There are some similarities. But there are also a lot of differences. And I think I will leave that.

This administration, the United States government is going to be very aggressive about identifying people who have participated in human rights abuses, have participated in the jailing, exiling or murdering of people who are crying out for freedom. We are going to use every tool in our toolbox to do that. That will include individual sanctions. That could also include sanctions by category. That is to say people who, for instance, are involved in the security apparatus, people who are involved in the judicial system, people that are involved in the executive.

We are not going to take anything off the table in that regard, and we are going to be very aggressive about both identifying them, whether they have committed abuses or taken part in some kind of corruption.

Question: In talks with the U.S. officials has Ortega given any signs of being prepared to hold early elections and step down?

Ambassador Robinson: Frankly, the talks are between President Ortega and the people of Nicaragua as represented by the Civic Alliance, and we’re very much focused on supporting the Civic Alliance in these talks.

We are, obviously, we have an excellent Ambassador on the ground, Ambassador Kevin Sullivan, who has had several opportunities to speak with Ortega and Murillo and other members of the government. We’re not going to talk about the substance of these ongoing talks, except to say they have been very direct and they’ve been very frank. And I don’t think the executive, I don’t think Ortega or Murillo have any doubts about where the United States stands in terms of reaching some kind of political agreement.

Question: You’re here in Brussels for meetings with EU officials. Could you tell us how those have gone?

Ambassador Robinson: Actually, it’s been excellent. The United States government has been very appreciative of the close cooperation and collaboration that we’ve had with the European Union, both between Washington and Brussels, and frankly, between our mission on the ground in Managua and the European Union Mission on the ground. We are very close in our outlook on things. We have been working hard to be unified in our position, as unified as we can in our positions on a political outcome. We’ve also been very unified in our support for those voices that are crying out for freedom and democracy. Support for the Catholic Church, the bishops, and the Civic Alliance.

Question: I wanted to follow up a little bit on the European Parliament. They approve a resolution asking for sanctions against the Nicaraguan government and those who are responsible for human rights abuses. What is your opinion on that?

Ambassador Robinson: Well, I haven’t seen the resolution so I can’t speak directly to it, but I would say we would obviously be gratified, overjoyed if they joined us in sanctioning people that have been involved in human rights abuses and corruption in Managua. These are the people that have wielded violence, have brought violence on their own people and I think the more we identify them and put them under the spotlight and show them to the world for what they really are, both the United States and Europe do a real service to those who are seeking a political solution to the problem.

Ambassador Robinson: No. As I said, we are going to be aggressive about identifying Nicaraguans who abuse their power. We’ve seen that already. We will continue to identify them and to sanction them and/or revoke their visas. We are overjoyed and gratified with the support and collaboration and cooperation that we’ve received from our partners in the European Union, and those in the Western Hemisphere and in Asia. There are countries in Asia that have leaned forward in helping us.

There are international organizations that have helped us as well. And again, I want to single out countries like Costa Rica and Panama that have been really generous in helping those Nicaraguans who are seeking safety and shelter but looking forward to returning to Nicaragua.

Also I want to identify for special mention the Organization of American States that has worked really hard to seek a political solution, and Secretary General Almagro who has spoken out so forcefully and clearly for democracy and the international, the Inter-American Charter. The OAS Working Group that they’ve set up and the Inter-American Human Rights Commission which has done an excellent job of monitoring and reporting on the tragic, appalling abuses and violence of the Ortega regime, again, on ordinary Nicaraguans. We are going to continue to work with these people and these organizations to try to come to a political solution to this very tough issue.