NicaNotes: Zoilamérica And The Legitimate Demands Of Nicaraguan Women

By Jill Clark

I met Zoilamérica Narváez in Nicaragua a few times in the 1980s. I found her to be an intelligent and personable young woman. I was later greatly saddened to learn of the sexual abuse allegations against her stepfather, Daniel Ortega. Then, as now, I had no reason to doubt the legitimacy of her story. I hoped for the best outcome for her in what we would now call her “me too” moment. I was disappointed that Ortega went on to be his party’s candidate while this matter was left unresolved. Had I been a Nicaraguan voter, I don’t think I would have been capable of voting for him.

Unfortunately, Zoilamérica has been re-victimized as a political football. Predictably, Ortega’s opponents in Nicaragua seized upon the allegations to discredit him. We also know from Wikileaks embassy cables that the United States government was actively promoting her case for political purposes. After meeting with her in 2006, U.S. embassy officials wrote that she felt that “the USG has only actively promoted her case in the run up to national elections and has lost interest thereafter.” Subsequently, Ambassador Trivelli used “democracy” funds to bring her up to the U.S. to meet with the OAS Human Rights Commission and be interviewed by Univision during that Nicaraguan election year. Over the years Zoilamérica has alternated between pursuing her case and reconciling with her family. It must be hard to know who has her best interests at heart.

Recycled media coverage is now reviving her story in what appears to be blatant exploitation by the opposition for political gain during the current negotiations in Nicaragua. Purported feminists of the MRS party and the Autonomous Women’s Movement (MAM), whom the embassy cables reveal have been colluding with the U.S. government for many years, have been leading the charge against the Nicaraguan government during the unrest that began in 2018. But I find it very hard to reconcile their purported defense of a sexual assault victim, abortion rights, and women’s rights in general, with a position that has them allied with the most conservative and anti-choice elements of the Catholic Church, while turning a blind eye to very serious violence perpetrated against women in their country by their political partners. As was well documented in the report Dismissing the Truth, the roadblocks funded by the opposition last year were scenes of horrifying violence where women were raped (including at least one little girl), while elsewhere opposition elements carried out brutal sexual assaults against police officers. The roadblocks and opposition-inflicted violence also did serious damage to the economy, particularly small businesses which are primarily women-owned.

I was fortunate enough to visit Nicaragua in January 2019 and meet several women connected to the Rural Workers Association (ATC). Their idea of feminism was very inspiring and gave me great hope for the future of Nicaragua and our planet. While Western professionals appear to view feminism’s purpose as getting women to preside over board rooms and countries, the grass roots Nicaraguan women seem to understand the need to change the economic system that allows patriarchy to work. In addition to owning and farming their own fields, they are striving to protect the health of their families, their land, and the earth through sustainable agriculture and, in the process, they are freeing themselves from dependence on costly and environmentally destructive commercial agricultural products. They are finding creative ways to ensure that remote rural women carry their education to the highest levels, and they have a large program to combat gender-based violence. In a sign of the depth of their impact, the sons of many of these women have formed an allied organization for gender equality, sustainable agriculture, and to stop violence against women. That is precisely the kind of cultural shift that can bring an historically sexist Latin American country to move beyond a system of inequality and exclusion.

In terms of health, education, economic opportunity, and political representation, Nicaragua can now boast that it has the highest level of gender equality in the Americas as measured by the Global Gender Gap Index, having moved from a 66% score in 2006 to 80.9% in 2018, or 5th in the world (for comparison, the United States ranks 51st with a score of 72%). But this does not mean that the grass roots feminists of Nicaragua are satisfied or have no complaints about their government. They will continue to use political space to push for their rights and to move society forward, including better prosecution of sexual assault cases. However, meddling from the United States in the form of funding opposition parties and exploiting sexual assault allegations for political gain, only closes that political space and makes it harder for Nicaraguans to work on building a better country.

This is all severely compounded by the economic sanctions of the NICA Act that threaten to put hundreds of thousands of Nicaraguans back into poverty after their standard of living had been steadily rising. Women are certain to be impacted disproportionately by this, as so much of the economic growth in the past 12 years was fueled by woman-owned small businesses. This is already evident in the fact that small firms were hit the hardest by last year’s violence, while large companies owned by the traditional oligarchs remain relatively unscathed. For all of these reasons, those of us who care about women in Nicaragua must urge our government to stop interfering in that country’s internal affairs.

Sexual abuse is a painful topic, not only for those involved in a given case, but also for members of the public who hear about it from news reports. My own country, the United States, has been doing a lot of soul-searching in recent years as prominent cases have dominated the headlines. We would do well to take a lesson from the Nicaraguan peasant women who are doing their part to change the patriarchal economic system that facilitates abuse.



By Nan McCurdy

Catholic Bishops Torpedo Current Negotiations
The only two Catholic leaders invited to accompany the reinitiated national negotiations were Managua Archbishop Cardinal Leopoldo Brenes and the Papal Nuncio Waldemar Stanislaw Sommertag. On March 11 the government delegation and the Papal Nuncio attended the negotiating table, but the opposition business sector did not. For the May 2018 Dialogue, the Bishops were invited by President Ortega to mediate, but they took the side of the opposition and the dialogue went nowhere. This time, some of the Bishops who had previously mediated appear to have convinced the Cardinal and the business sector to walk away from the negotiating table.  

A Foreign Affairs Ministry press release stated: “The delegation of the Government of Nicaragua ratifies its commitment to continue strengthening democracy and developing working sessions to reach a consensus on the agenda approved by both delegations on March 5, 2019.” Some of the agenda items include:

  1. Strengthening the Electoral Institutions through implementing the recommendations of the OAS Electoral Accompaniment Mission and Proposals for Electoral Reforms.
  2. Justice and Reparations to Continue Consolidating Peace, Security, and Stability.
  3. Release of prisoners who have not yet been tried in the context of criminal acts that occurred from April 2018 against the State of Nicaragua. Continue to strengthen the freedoms, rights and guarantees established in the Constitution.
  4. Make international efforts to obtain support for the implementation of the Final Agreements of the Negotiation and call on the international community to suspend all sanctions against the Nicaraguan people in order to facilitate the right to human, economic and social development of Nicaragua, favoring the most vulnerable sectors of the population. (Radio la Primerisima, 3/12/19)

Nicaraguan Government and OAS Agree to Have a Representative in the Negotiations
The Government of Nicaragua formally invited a special envoy of the OAS General Secretariat to participate in the negotiations with the opposition. Luis Ángel Rosadilla is in Nicaragua and has participated over the last two years on work towards electoral reform. (Informe Pastran, 3/11/19)

President Daniel Ortega One of the Best Rated in the Americas
According to the latest ranking of popularity of Latin American presidents conducted by the Mexican firm Consulta Mitofsky, Nicaraguan President Daniel Ortega rates higher than the rest of Central American presidents and even most South American presidents. Mexican President Andrés Manuel López Obrador is the best ranked by his citizens, with an approval of 67%. He is followed by Peru’s president, Martín Vizcarra, with 63%; Danilo Medina, from the Dominican Republic, with 58% and Daniel Ortega, from Nicaragua, with 55%. (Informe Pastran, 3/11/19)

Prisoner Human Rights Respected
The Nicaragua Ministry of Governance and the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC), signed a cooperation agreement to strengthen protection for the human rights of all prisoners in the National Penitentiary System. Minister of Governance Maria Coronel said the agreement is part of the efforts undertaken by the government to ensure full respect for the human rights of all prisoners. (Nicaragua News, 3/8/19)

Nicaragua Makes Progress in Implementing Environmental Regulations
On March 9, the Nicaragua Ministry of Environment and Natural Resources (MARENA) and a World Bank mission organized a workshop in Managua on International Environmental Standards. World Bank Environmental Specialist Mario Nanclares said Nicaragua is one of the first countries in the world that has made great progress in the implementation of these new environmental regulations. (Nicaragua News, 3/8/19)