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  Number 222 | Enero 2000
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Nicaragua

After the Pact: The Die Is Cast

The "center" has been opened up not by ideologues but by a political moment and a dramatic history. The coming months, culminating with the municipal elections, will be a first and decisive test for those who find themselves in this center following the pact.

Nitlápan-Envío team

For Nicaragua, 1999 not only marked the end of the twentieth century and the second millennium. It also marked the end of the "transition" initiated amid so many limitations in 1990, following the FSLN’s electoral defeat and the beginning of the Chamorro government. The new rules of the game hammered out by the top echelons of today’s governing Constitutionalist Liberal Party (PLC) and the largest opposition party, the FSLN, have effectively opened a new stage. Their pact generated strong resistance, but to no effect. With its consummation, many spaces shut down.

Next stop: the November municipal elections. Is there any possibility that a truly national alternative could emerge that would begin prying these spaces back open, an alternative based on building a democracy that makes room for everyone? This will be the most crucial question over the coming months.

It’s no gentlemen’s agreement

The reforms to the Constitution and to the Electoral Law, which are the visible aspects of the Alemán-Ortega pact, were voted into law by 70 of the 93 representatives to the National Assembly in a three-hour session on January 18. This was the obligatory second passage in a new legislative session (the first passage came in December 1999, just before last year’s legislature adjourned). The reformed Constitution went into effect the very next day with its publication in La Gaceta, the official government daily, and the new Electoral Law was published five days later.

The National Assembly also scheduled the municipal elections for November 5, publicly contradicting the Supreme Electoral Council, which only days earlier had announced the date as November 12.

Both parties were in a hurry to conclude the highly criticized negotiations because, as Daniel Ortega put it, once the heated debates that the pact triggered in the media and other forums subsided, "people will forget all this and concentrate on the elections." The procedure in both rounds of legislative voting was marked by this same rush: a virtual absence of debate on the parliamentary floor; immediate proclamation of the reforms by the President; and their publication in record time in La Gaceta. The date of final passage—January 18—is also the birthday of Nicaragua’s celebrated poet Rubén Darío. Does this coincidence hold out some promise for the future? Will this latest humiliation bring forth a new light, just as the humble town of Metapa brought forth a genius?
Who won most with this pact, Alemán’s backers or Ortega’s? And who lost? Analyses have rained down arguing both sides of these questions—which are not, as they might appear, two sides of the same question. The main thing that became clear in the succeeding days is that the pact is not exactly a gentlemen’s agreement; now that it is "legalized," the political obscenity it has spawned could multiply even further.

All branches of state
now have a bipartisan stamp

On February 1, the National Assembly, still wasting no time, elected the two new Supreme Electoral Council (CSE) magistrates agreed to in the pact, thus raising the number from five to seven. Ex-colonel and current FSLN Managua party chief Emmet Lang was chosen for the Sandinistas and legislator Silvio Américo Calderón for the Liberals, despite evidence linking the latter to a conflict of interest scandal. When Calderón’s name came up, a former manager of Bellsouth’s offices in Nicaragua revealed that the powerful transnational had hired Calderón’s wife a few months earlier to do a study aimed at getting the National Assembly to approve clauses favoring it in a new telecommunications and postal services law. The law, including these clauses, was pushed through in late December because Calderón himself chaired the findings committee and lobbied the votes needed. Despite the scandal, Calderón was elected to the CSE with the votes of Sandinistas as well as Liberals.

Through an arbitrary interpretation of the Constitution, it was decided in the pact negotiations that CSE president Rosa Marina Zelaya and three other sitting magistrates would conclude their term in July 2000, a year before the period for which they were elected is up and only three months before the municipal elections. Zelaya has announced that she will sue on grounds of unconstitutionality. Then, in an unscheduled meeting on February 4, Zelaya was relieved of her post as president by a vote of five CSE magistrates to two. They replaced her with Roberto Rivas, a jurist elected to the CSE with Cardinal Obando’s backing shortly before the 1996 elections.

The National Assembly also elected four new comptrollers to join Agustín Jarquín—at least initially—as the collegial heads of the new Executive Council of the Office of Comptroller General (CGR). Former deputy foreign minister Guillermo Argüello Poessy, former presidential adviser Francisco Ramírez and accountant Juan Gutiérrez were elected for the Liberals, and psychiatrist José Pasos Marciaq for the Sandinistas. The next day, Argüello Poessy was elected president of the council for the first year, displacing Jarquín.

All four branches of government now have a bipartisan stamp. The National Assembly’s election of these brand new top-level posts born of the pact—which will also include four new Supreme Court justices—was revelatory. There was the legislative branch’s insulting lack of independence and the excessive power that the two party strongmen wield over it. There was the scant concern for the appointees’ professional or ethical standards displayed by those who negotiated the filling of these posts. Then there were the joint ills of mistrust and opportunism that are so rife in the political class. And of course there were new examples of the solidly ensconced corruption—bribery and influence peddling—affecting a significant group of legislators. Neither last nor least are the instability of the pact’s accords and their aim to establish a strictly two-party system that is exclusionary on the one hand and bound to suffer from constant confrontations on the other. Based both on what can be read on paper and on what has begun to be demonstrated in practice, it is hard to see how the pact could possibly contribute to good governance in Nicaragua.

With all these changes,
Why a constituent assembly?

Most revealing of all was President Alemán’s reaction as the definitive approval of the constitutional reforms approached. The head of state again began to refer publicly to his true project: to replace the presidential elections in 2001 with elections for representatives to a constituent assembly. As the highest decision-making power of the state, this body would have absolute authority to draft a new Constitution over the ensuing two years. Merely floating such an idea right now bared the short-term, high-ticket interests behind the current constitutional reforms: the changes are just to gain total control of the levers of state for a few months and from there throw the whole Constitution out. Through the reform that grants Alemán a lifetime legislative seat, he has already guaranteed his own participation in the constituent assembly and is presumably banking on being accompanied by a majority of loyal deputies.

The constituent assembly project is really about Alemán’s desire to be reelected. An incumbent President is constitutionally prohibited from running for re-election in Nicaragua and public sentiment is so opposed to the idea that he did not make much effort to force a change through in the pact. Rewriting the Constitution would thus kill two birds with one stone: cleanse the constitutional language of all vestiges of Sandinismo and create a two-year "legal parenthesis" in which Alemán would run the country from the constituent assembly, not the presidency, and thus be technically eligible to run again. This plan for remaining in power may explain why other PLC hopefuls are still hunkered down, though another explanation might be Alemán’s fear that the PLC could lose the 2001 presidential elections, which makes them wary of staking personal and family wealth on their candidacy.

What? A parliamentary system?

Retired Army General Humberto Ortega, the main Sandinista strategist behind the pact, has also been proposing a constituent assembly for some time. This proposal comes hand in hand with his brother Daniel’s advocating constitutional reforms to establish a parliamentary system in the name of the "new consensus" the country needs. He refers to this concept as "a genuine revolution," and indeed it would be if it were genuinely to happen.

Let’s not forget that both the PLC and the FSLN reviled the 1995 constitutional reforms aimed simply at establishing a better balance between the executive and legislative branches—and they still do. President Alemán’s practical answer was simply to violate those reforms. With his iron control over his own party’s bench and shameless purchasing of independent votes, he has turned the National Assembly into a sub-office of the presidency, even though such concentration of power is in increasing disuse almost everywhere else in the global village. If by strengthening the parliamentary system, Ortega means the system we have now, it is a tempting idea for caudillos like him and Alemán, since it fits hand in glove with their preferred presidentialist style. The recently culminated pact, for example, explicitly forces legislative aspirants to run only on political party slates, thus closing any possibility of independent lawmakers and thus the strengthening of representative democracy in a parliament.
Given the exclusionary bipartisan nature of the Alemán-Ortega pact and the attempt to cloak the two negotiating groups’ corruption, virtually all media and social organizations consistently criticized the pact negotiations in detail. Nonetheless, the strongly opposed public opinion did not jam up the works in the least. In the National Assembly, only 20 legislators, most of them from small wavering parties, voted against the reforms, and with varying degrees of lucidity and strength in their public arguments. In the end, just 4 of the 36 FSLN representatives voted against them even though, institutional aspects aside, the mere fact of having negotiated such important issues with a man like Alemán grates on the conscience of the Sandinista grass roots.

Sandinista mayors
could save the FSLN’s bacon

The confusion and dispersion experienced by Sandinismo in recent years has only increased with the pact and is now showing signs of being irreversible. For all that, however, the FSLN just might pull good results in the municipal elections. If it does, it will be mainly due to the positive performance of many Sandinista mayors over these four years, even though the party largely left them to their fate. They have been able to do something for their communities thanks only to their own enormous efforts and to the solidarity of national and international organizations, particularly after Hurricane Mitch.
Managua is a whole other thing. Just before Christmas, yet another chapter in the FSLN crisis opened the eyes of a sector of Sandinistas that until then had remained loyally behind Ortega and the positions he adopted. A series of events that culminated on December 21, when the controversial Carlos Guadamuz was kicked out of Radio YA, his own station, profoundly confused these Sandinistas, who tend to be among the capital’s poorest population and big fans of Guadamuz’s bombastic populism. Nobody was more pro-Daniel than Guadamuz; they shared a cell in Somoza’s prison in the 1970s and Guadamuz now admits that the innumerable campaigns he waged to discredit other Sandinista leaders were masterminded by Ortega himself. What happened?

Guadamuz shot his wad and lost

In 1996, Guadamuz aspired to be the FSLN’s candidate for mayor of Managua, a slot he won in the party "consultation," even though his detractors tried to stop him with fraud. Furthermore, once the national campaign got underway, the party structures let FSLN militants know that they should not vote for him. Despite all of that, Guadamuz appeared in the early vote count to be winning Managua, though he eventually lost to Roberto Cedeño, the Liberal candidate, amid the massive anomalies that characterized the 1996 elections, especially in Managua.
Undaunted, Guadamuz again launched his mayoral candidacy within the FSLN for this year’s race. While canvassing to get the signatures needed to back him, he claims he began to realize the huge confusion and rejection that the pact was triggering among Managua’s Sandinista population. With his characteristically vehement and insulting style of disqualifying anything he opposes, Guadamuz began to excoriate the pact from his radio station and anywhere else he happened to find an audience. It should not be lost from sight in this story that the pact was virtually a done deal by the time he decided to oppose it.

Among all the pact’s unpopular agreements, the one that sparked Guadamuz into action was the idea of carving up the capital into three municipalities—Managua, El Crucero and Ciudad Sandino. This particular aspect of the pact was one of Alemán’s whims, based on his fears that the PLC could lose control of the Managua municipal council, thus disrupting the last year of his presidency. Months before coming out against the pact as a whole, Guadamuz began an impassioned campaign against this subdivision, making it the main banner of his race for mayor. Daniel Ortega went on record against the subdivision and the FSLN publicly supported Guadamuz’s idea of a referendum to let the public decide. Not only that, a study financed by the Inter-American Development Bank concluded that the two newly created municipalities would not be economically viable. Nonetheless, the division was approved on December 15, with only 10 Sandinista representatives voting against lopping off 300 square kilometers of the capital’s historic territory.

Like a desperate sniper, Guadamuz took insulting potshots at the legislators who had approved the measure and at Daniel Ortega as the architect of the pact as a whole. He was as cocky in his insults as always, trusting in his close friendship with Ortega. But many rules of the game have changed in this post-pact period, as Guadamuz would learn. Within 48 hours, he had lost everything: his radio station, his AM and FM frequencies, his FSLN militancy and thus the possibility of running as the FSLN candidate for mayor of Managua.

How the pact works

On December 21, responding to a suit for back pay by four station employees, a Managua judge decreed three preventive embargoes against Radio YA, which were immediately executed with the support of an impressive deployment of police. Since the station is located on a main thoroughfare directly across from the Central American University, its occupation by the police caused a ruckus. The street protest was led by supporters of Guadamuz, who had been summarily expelled from the FSLN a week earlier for the vulgar epithets he had hurled at FSLN legislators who voted for the pact’s agreements. Immediately following the incident, the station was turned over to the workers who had sued, all of them Ortega supporters. They promptly founded a "new" Radio YA, firing 45 workers loyal to Guadamuz. Guadamuz blamed Ortega for the judicial and police maneuvers, calling him "Nicaragua’s new Somoza." Even though official FSLN documents recognize the station as having been Guadamuz’s personal property and not party property, he has abandoned the legal fight to regain it and concentrated on defending his rights as an FSLN militant.

This was the first public demonstration of how the pact works outside the National Assembly walls. The embargo and immediate handing over of the radio station to the pro-Daniel workers was without precedent in the annals of Nicaraguan labor conflicts. Neither this procedure, nor the violent occupation of the station by riot police to enforce the embargo, nor the cancellation of the station’s transmitting frequency for alleged debts could ever have happened, much less instantaneously, without the state institutions’ full collaboration with FSLN structures. The FSLN had decided to dump Guadamuz since his candidacy and his criticisms just weren’t right for these post-pact times. His campaign, his post as radio director and his free access to the microphones as a news commentator were turning him into an uncontrollable headache. The state thus expeditiously but illegally resolved an internal FSLN problem, turning a party decision by the Ortega circle into reality in a matter of hours and eliminating a threat to the PLC’s own mayoral candidate in the process.

Shoot the messenger

The Radio YA case was a worrying precedent against both freedom of expression and freedom of private enterprise. The confiscation buttressed the "two-headed dictatorship" image that had already begun to be used to describe the pact’s overall results. It also sounded an alert about what could happen to other written, radio or TV media if their criticisms of the two hegemonic parties began irritating either head too much. An alternative political project must take this into account as one of the first points on its agenda.
Alemán and Ortega seem to think alike in the way they criticize and disqualify the media, spaces of power that have enjoyed almost total freedom—not to mention a negative tendency toward both excessive license and trafficking in news interpretations—since the early 1990s. There may well be no other country in Latin America in which the media as a whole are in such open political opposition as they are in Nicaragua.
In his triumphalist report to the National Assembly on January 10 to usher in his fourth year in government, President Alemán defended the pact with a rhetorical attack on the media. "This political dialogue," he raged, "was satanized a priori in an irrational and frenzied manner by irrelevant minorities and monopolistic family interests incrusted in the communications business which, on top of benefiting from questionable tax privileges granted by the past administration, exploit the most unrestricted freedom of press, which my government protects, to enrich themselves. It would appear that some dealers in this activity have no values, no respect whatever and no patriotism."
He made particular reference to the staunch opposition coming daily from the pages of La Prensa. It seemed to particularly offend him, since it came from members of the country’s traditional oligarchy, with whom he tends to establish comparisons to brag about his own economic, political and even sentimental achievements.

It was therefore no surprise when Alemán sent a bill to the Assembly—aimed, according to him, at "dignifying journalism"—that establishes minimum salaries for journalists beyond what most media could pay. Its obvious aim is to use economic means to indirectly restrict the "unrestricted" freedom of expression of which the President boasts.

Qualifying and disqualifying candidates at will

The pact had an electoral skew to it from the outset. Ortega wanted to eliminate the required second round of voting for President from the Constitution and Alemán wanted to eliminate the prohibition of consecutive reelection. Neither one came out with quite what he wanted. Ortega got the percentage of votes required to win the first round dropped by 10 points, and Alemán got the right to move automatically from President to National Assembly representative when his term ends.

Many of the pact’s agreements have to do with laying the groundwork for the next elections: candidacies, electoral magistrates, parties, alliances, polling booths, etc. The new rules of the game have two objectives: turn the electoral institution into a bipartisan body at all levels and channel the will of the voters toward a two-party system. They also have a common philosophy that suits the two big parties: the majorities rule and the minorities are ignored.

Among other things, the pact lifted the ban on a group of PLC presidential aspirants previously prevented from seeking that office for having renounced their Nicaraguan citizenship to become nationals of another country during the Sandinista period. It also barred strong contenders of other political stripes who were planning to run for the presidency or for mayor of Managua.

Solórzano is out too

In the forthcoming race for mayor of Managua, Alemán feared not only Guadamuz’s popularity but also that of Pedro Solórzano, the strong independent who had run in 1996 for the popular subscription association called Viva Managua, and was again outstripping both Guadamuz and the PLC candidate in the polls. It took both quasi-legal and strong-arm tactics to stop Guadamuz, while Solórzano was stopped by the mere stroke of a few pens. First, the concept of popular subscription in municipal elections got the legislative ax, revealing the undemocratic swing toward forcing a two-party system and forcing Solórzano to eventually link up with a party. Then the electoral law was changed to require that a mayoral candidate must officially reside in the municipality for which he or she is running, and through some tortuous gerrymandering in the new division of the capital, Solórzano suddenly found himself living just inside El Crucero.

Solórzano had suffered all kinds of anomalies in the 1996 elections. When he lost then, he did so graciously; he did not blame "the anomalies," either because he chose not to, couldn’t or didn’t know where to begin. This time, in contrast, he filed a complaint with the Supreme Electoral Council.

The pact, however, tolerates no competition: you either join or get disqualified. When the collaboration of the Nicaraguan Institute of Territorial Studies, which dutifully did the gerrymandering, wasn’t enough, pro-pact deputies in the National Assembly shamelessly approved a last-minute reform to the Constitution eliminating an attribution of the CSE that would allow it to rule on Solórzano’s complaint.

This whole process just to stop Solórzano and Guadamuz shows the concrete weight of the fear, caprice and mood swings influencing the pact’s circles of power. There is no reason not to suspect, for example, that resolutions emanating from the new collegial Office of Comptroller General or the new Supreme Electoral Council will be used to bar, one by one, any other candidates who show promise.

Is the new comptroller’s office
a guarantee of corruption?

The international community agrees with national public opinion that one of the most worrying results of the pact are the changes wreaked in the Office of Comptroller General of the Republic (CGR), establishing that five comptrollers, selected between Alemán and Ortega, will direct this state auditing entity.

The additional budget requirements to pay for this change are estimated at some $700,000 per year, but the financial burden is not the most negative consequence. The greater fear is that the cases selected for investigation will be conditioned by the interests of those who elected the new comptrollers and that the results of the investigations will be diluted once submitted to the vote of the "majority" vote of the five comptrollers. The work is also more streamlined with one comptroller, and could become bogged down with five.

Since there is no way to technically predetermine that one comptroller is better or worse than five, most optimistic observers are unwilling to categorically state that the CGR’s function was "perverted" by the change. "We have expressed our concerns to the government and have been given explanations," reported Christian Oldenburg, head of Denmark’s diplomatic mission in Nicaragua. "We are now just going to have to observe what happens, because one does not determine if the pie is good based on its recipe. Its quality can only be verified after it is baked and tasted."
The collegial pie is being given all the benefits of the doubt until the new recipe has been taste-tested, but it is no secret that the scheme was the result not of a decision based on technical criteria, but of an institutional conflict that the President turned into a personal obsession. The most extreme expression of that obsession was the unjust imprisonment of the comptroller general himself, a measure that stunned both the country and the international community. Given the President’s private war against the CGR and the lack of any tradition of controls in Nicaragua, it is obvious that the collegial comptroller’s office will eliminate the conflict that that was placing such a strain on the country, but will not necessarily eliminate the corruption eating away at it.
In his first declarations, the newly-elected head of this collegial structure defended an audit ordered by the National Assembly to investigate Agustín Jarquín’s management of the CGR over the past four years. Poessy’s support did not bode well for impartiality, since the order was issued in an irregular manner, without following the appropriate legal procedures for selecting and hiring auditors.

Alemán countenances
no controls

The audit is just one more example of the ongoing harassment of Jarquín. After serving 44 days for a minor infraction that Alemán blew up into a sentence of "fraud against the state," Nicaragua’s besieged comptroller general was released from prison on Christmas Eve, when the Appeals Court dismissed the charges against him. Also released were TV news personality Danilo Lacayo, whose use of a false name on a research and publicity contract with the CGR started the problem, and Néstor Abaunza, a former CGR employee whose role and motives were anything but clear. Abaunza seems to have been both the one who blew the whistle on the falsification of documents to back up the pseudonym on the document as well as the one who negotiated the contract with Lacayo on behalf of the CGR in the first place.

Before another month was out, the attorney general’s office, which answers directly to the executive branch, filed a post-judgment request in the Appeals Court to reverse the decision in Jarquín’s favor. Next, Abaunza accused the comptroller of still more "crimes against the state," charges the National Assembly’s Anti-Corruption Commission immediately agreed to investigate. Then, as soon as the Constitution was reformed to permit the installation of a collegial comptroller’s office, the National Assembly board ordered the CGR audit, with the obvious aim of "discovering" new charges against Jarquín. Next, only days after the restructured institution began functioning, Jarquín was relieved of the task he had first been assigned: to oversee the planning of the office’s work. The job was reassigned to a simple adviser, in a move aimed at sidelining and humiliating Jarquín.

Through deeds not words, Alemán has made it clear that he will not tolerate being audited or supervised by anyone, not by the state institutions, civil society’s organizations, the media or even his own party, where his post as honorary president guarantees him absolute control. This ill also afflicts the FSLN leadership when it comes to issues of corruption and transparency. It is years since the FSLN last took up the fight against corruption or waved the banner of ethics, including the morality of public officials or the necessary link between public and private life. It shares with the governments that preceded it and the two that have followed it the conception of the "patrimonial state" and its leaders have figured out to juggle a dual discourse and a double morality with greater or lesser dexterity.
On January 18, two days before being relieved of his post as comptroller general, Jarquín filed a summary administrative action against Alemán for refusing to inform the comptroller’s office about the rather staggering increase in his personal and family holdings since taking office, as the law requires. Alemán responded by letter, stating that, as an "ex-comptroller," Jarquín no longer had any business issuing such actions. He added that Jarquín’s decision reflects an "obnubilated and excited criterion resulting from a sick desire to cause harm" and concluded his rhetoric with the following invocation: "Calm, Oh God, petrified hatred in some individuals, hatred that has been disseminated throughout their histology, inveterate hatred that I pardon and overlook." Alemán later announced that he would present his declaration of goods to the new comptrollers, due to his confidence in them, a trust they promptly justified by declaring that the President’s holdings was not a priority issue.

On January 20, with the reforms hot off the press, Jarquín was stripped of his comptroller general post, but to lower the political cost, the FSLN decided to let him remain as one of the five controllers until his term ends in April 2002. The events that followed, however, showed that keeping him in the CGR was just a different way to "imprison" him. The new objective, shared by both Alemán and Ortega, is to leave Jarquín legally "tarnished" so he cannot aspire to any public post. He can thus look forward to even more suits filed against him, the audit of his management of the watchdog institution and public attacks in paid newspaper ads, all aimed at encircling him with doubts, relegating him, discrediting him.

The end of an experience

Jarquín’s handling of the CGR gave it credibility and helped initiate an unprecedented awareness among the citizenry about how much of a social evil the corruption of public officials represents for an impoverished society such as ours. The experiment lasted only three years and nine months, too short a time to solidify this awareness.
Under Jarquín, the CGR improved the state institutions’ internal control systems and "salvaged" millions of dollars in state resources by stopping illicit contracts and pointing out irregularities and anomalies in institutional procedures. It particularly investigated the meteoric rise of President Alemán’s own holdings, thus demonstrating that Nicaragua’s President actually used many of the institutional services—water, electricity, highways, agricultural technology, topography, credit, property titling and registry, etc.—of the "facilitator state" proposed and imposed by the neoliberal model to "facilitate" the private businesses belonging to him and his family. Despite the CGR’s presentation of ample evidence that a number of Alemán’s top officials have engaged in sizable illicit operations—which the President brushed off as "petty theft"—not one of those officials has been removed, judged or sanctioned in any way. The only sanctioning came from the media, which have publicly vented such cases, thus stopping the citizenry’s new awareness from being utterly asphyxiated.

Facing the danger alone

The CGR investigated and demonstrated, but nothing changed, thus undermining the very legitimacy that the institution was beginning to gain in public consciousness. What is the bottom line, then? Has the CGR awakened a new democratic awareness or has it deepened the sense of impotence fed by the traditional political culture, which establishes that whoever has power also has the right to rob, without being accountable to anyone?
The Office of Attorney General and a good number of dependencies of the judicial branch lacked the CGR’s autonomy and its ethical agenda. The fact of the matter is that for nearly four years the CGR faced the danger all alone: a single state institution—supported only by the media—doing battle with an executive branch that controls all the other institutions and with a deep-seated culture that runs crosscurrent to transparency.
The issues of ethics among public servants, of transparency, of control over public officials will have to be centerpieces of any proposal drawn up by an alternative political force seeking to challenge the Alemáns and Ortegas in the next elections. This presupposes not only selecting credible candidates with an honest trajectory, but also publicly acknowledging the errors committed in this regard by candidates and parties over these years. It must be done, and it must be done openly. And when it is not done, it must be recognized.

Anomie and anemia

The justifications that the PLC and the FSLN have used to sell the pact provide attractive packaging given the political culture of most Nicaraguans. That culture plus the impoverishment of the majority mean that economic survival issues are the only ones that truly worry the population. There is precious little interest in institutional or legal issues. Even economic themes—the continued price hikes affecting basic products and public services, the unemployment and lack of job opportunities—have little mobilizing power today. Anomie and anemia are endemic among the population, with the exception of some public employees—mainly extremely underpaid health and education workers—who periodically clamor for better wages.

This paralysis, passivity, demoralization, demobilization and confusion are what make possible the impunity so shamelessly flaunted by those engaged in the pact. It is a lot easier to change the rules of the game when there are few players or when those who come into it without aces up their sleeves are not themselves organized. There is still no civic culture around which to mobilize consciousness and practice. Autonomous institutions, respect for the law, a citizen’s right to sue the state, individually elected legislators and the possibility of running as an independent candidate are issues that spark little interest in Nicaragua even though all are fundamental to democracy and to making the market function more democratically and thus more in favor of the poor. Most people have little understanding of and hence little interest in these advances, the advantages they offer or even the role they might play in helping them find a way out of their own poverty. Most are accustomed to ideologized and politicized analyses that never reflect on such options. For people to begin to embrace a civic culture, a long educational process is required, one that neither begins nor ends with electoral processes. It is a long-term gamble.

The pact according to Alemán

Alemán presents the pact to the population in general and non-Sandinistas in particular as an effort that facilitates "good governance." He wants people to think he has "twisted the Sandinistas’ arm" to make them give up their street barricades and tumultuous strikes. It’s clever packaging, because no one in Nicaragua—whether Sandinista or non-Sandinista—wants more war; few support violent methods of struggle, with their street barricades and homemade mortars. The pact, as sold by Alemán, thus offers the hope of some relief amidst all the daily problems.
Even if it wanted to, the FSLN no longer has the capacity to call the population out to engage in massive violence against the state. In fact, it probably could not even lead the people in the kind of massive expressions of peaceful civic struggle seen recently in Ecuador. It does, however, still have the ability to constantly disturb public order with its own shock troops, which can give the appearance of being linked to "popular struggles." Such fleeting but violent manifestations still cannot be discarded, should moments of crisis arise in the pact. This is why President Alemán and his officials have not laid aside their constant diatribe against "the dark night of the past decade," quite apart from the fact that this anti-Sandinista rhetoric is also the glue that keeps their grassroots base together. One analyst with a taste for irony has called the pact between such enemies a "strange associated rivalry."

The pact according to Ortega

When Daniel Ortega presents the pact to Sandinistas as a clever negotiation to ensure "good governance," he means something entirely different than Alemán. He means "having gotten the FSLN the institutional spaces it merits as the second political force." That, combined with his argument that the pact is a passport to winning the elections and returning to power, is good packaging on his part. It is a welcome relief to be able to dream of returning in only two more years to a government that people imagine as it was in the eighties, with work, free health care and education and all the other opportunities of those years, this time with no war.

In fact the pact is little more than political abuse of the Nicaraguan population by two caudillos who are insensitive to the poverty paralyzing it but all too aware of the scant democratic culture that history has bequeathed the country. The pact has all the characteristics of a case of abuse within the home, where the immaturity and dependence of the abused child are exploited by a disrespectful and irresponsible abuser. Both forms of abuse are premeditated and are based on unequal power, trickery, humiliation masquerading as protection, and evil intent.

The country is dependent, too

Nicaragua is extremely dependent on credits and donations from the international community, and no indicators suggest that it is likely to break out of that dependence in the foreseeable future. In 1999, national exports brought in less income than the cooperation funds disbursed by the wealthy countries, and barely exceeded the family remittances that Nicaraguan emigrants sent as survival packages to the poor relatives they left behind.
Nicaragua is barely viable without international backing. But it is also a kind of "roulette country" on which the international community has been placing bet after bet for years: to help it build an original revolution, to help it resist, to help it make the transition to democracy, to help it become viable. And now, after Mitch, to help it rebuild. Most recently, even the IMF, the World Bank and the Inter-American Development Bank are betting that there will be verifiable doses of governance and transparency in the country.
President Alemán is not yet used to this latest rule change in the multilateral lending agencies’ game. In his report to the National Assembly on his three years of government, Alemán dug in his heels against this shift and said so, even with ironic criticism, in his speech: "The well known, highly debated and very old term governance is being unusually inserted, as if it were a modern tool of apparently recent reinvention, in certain sui generis agendas of some countries and international agencies, the latter of which were, at least until recently, characterized as specialists in basically financial affairs."

Who aborted the
Consultative Group’s visit?

The international community followed the incidents leading to the Alemán-Ortega pact very attentively, step by step. The constitutional and electoral reforms are directly linked to the more or less efficient functioning of the branches of state—which is what governance is all about—and to the more or less correct use of the state’s resources—which is what transparency is all about.

For some time now, the donor countries’ Consultative Group had been planning to meet in situ with the Central American governments between February 8 and 11, to provide continuity to the May 1999 meeting in Stockholm in which significant post-Mitch aid was pledged. In Nicaragua, the monitoring over the two months prior to this meeting revealed a worrying record: the comptroller general in jail, new cases of government corruption, laws shelved, a political pact strongly challenged by public opinion, a government semi-paralyzed by party interests in a premature electoral campaign, accusations of "arrogance" against the international community and the government’s visible failure to comply with certain commitments taken on in Stockholm: decentralization, the fight against poverty, the struggle against environmental vulnerability, civil society participation, good governance and transparency.
As if this was not enough, just before the scheduled meeting with the Consultative Group in Managua, President Alemán inexplicably opted to offend the international community representatives in several public appearances. In a threatening tone, he warned them that "it was not within their purview" to analyze the constitutional reforms. He challenged them to provide proof of the corruption in his government. He accused them of "lending themselves to the political game of those who already had their opportunity and did nothing." And he told them to go back where they came from and criticize their own countries.

One European ambassador commented to envío that the diplomats found the President’s continuous outbursts, his levels of disrespect toward them and the confrontational language he often used to challenge them utterly incredible. "How does one explain this behavior?" the ambassador asked rhetorically, then answered himself: "Neither our warnings nor threats matter to him, because he knows that we who have cooperated with the Nicaraguan people for so many years are never going to abandon this country; we are not going to let it starve." In the words of Carmelo Angulo, the United Nations Development Program representative in Nicaragua, "the international community’s support to Nicaragua has formed part of this country’s heritage since the year of the earthquake."
After the insults, Alemán went even further and announced that he would not attend the Consultative Group meeting because he would be traveling to Mexico, with his usual vast entourage, to look into tourism investments. At the same time, leaving very limited time for the representatives of civil society to make any contributions, the government began to "discuss" with them the document on "poverty reduction" to be presented to the donors. It received very fundamental critical contributions, but any substantial modification of the document, which is of course the most strategic one, was impossible in the few days remaining before the meeting. In this tense and embarrassing environment, the government announced, with no further details, that the Consultative Group meeting had been suspended.

Did the international community suspend it to give the government a new opportunity to get its act together, make changes in the document and recover some sanity? Or did the government suspend it, having already recovered the modicum of intelligence needed to grasp that it was going to fail its exam miserably? In either case, the signal sent by Nicaragua was not a good one.

"Like sheep without a shepherd"

The international community, which talks soft but carries a big financial stick, has put up resistance to the pact, but it hasn’t achieved much either. International cooperation is no substitute for national opposition, and with the country blanketed in clouds of confusion, only a political and social minority opposed the pact. These are people who have the dual privilege of being able to think in alternative terms and of having access to public tribunes, whether the media, NGOs, congresses or forums, through which to express their opposition constantly. But do they represent the majority? Are they linked to the grassroots base that is struggling to survive and could end up pacting with the pact?
Almost all political forces began reorganizing themselves "the day after" the pact. There was a little bit of everything. While the National Resistance Party (the former "contras") chose a nephew of Somoza as one of their candidates, five parties spoke of the possibility of forming a center alliance called New Nicaragua, and businessman Manuel Ignacio Lacayo launched a new and rather strange party called the Nicaragua Can Do It Movement, which sparked a lot of suspicion.

The conditions are now in place for the emergence of a single political organization to fill that vast middle ground where the indignant dissidents of both pacting parties, the new generations from the traditional parties, those tired of polarization, all those young people who never really knew either Somocismo or Sandinismo and so many people with a history of honesty if not a known political trajectory are all huddled like "sheep without a shepherd." The rigid electoral conditions imposed by the pact could actually have a positive effect if they oblige the myriad small political groups currently dispersed around this "center" to unite, make concrete proposals, give up fighting with each other for their own spot in the limelight and finally start putting Nicaragua first.

The die is cast

For some months the polls have been showing that over half of the population identifies with neither Alemán’s Liberals nor Ortega’s Sandinistas. The pact has surely increased these percentages, although the polls taken today are one thing and the fanatic sympathies fanned by the spectacle of slick electoral campaigns, in which many people with no particular allegiance could line up behind one of the known party bosses, are another. Why? Because the party bosses have power and are untouchable. Because nobody likes to bet on a loser. And because the pact’s philosophy is contagious and part of that philosophy is that only big is good.

Both the PLC and the FSLN will pull out all stops to prevent any united alternative—some refer to it as a "third way," while others prefer to call it the "first way"—from providing any real challenge in the upcoming elections. At least for now, both the PLC and the FSLN are more willing to firm up their alliance with each other than to make any gestures toward the center.

The way these two parties dispatched Guadamuz, Solórzano and Jarquín, not to mention their joint campaign against Violeta Chamorro and General Joaquín Cuadra, demonstrates their fear of any alternative that might get past the obstacles so carefully and abusively put in place with the reforms. If any such candidates slip through, they could act as magnets for this center or at least pull votes way from the two dominant parties.

Responsible Sandinismo

Many Sandinistas have found themselves pushed into the center ground, whether out of conscience or exhaustion. The presence of Sandinismo is strategic to any alternative project that wishes to reconstruct democracy in Nicaragua, but what Sandinismo? With the pact now sewn up, one of its mentors, Rafael Solís, aware of the wounds the pact has opened, said, "The contradictions are behind us; and the task now is to strengthen Daniel Ortega’s leadership. We need to close ranks to back him." On the other side of the debate within Sandinismo, Dora María Téllez, head of the Sandinista Renovation Movement, shot back: "To strengthen Daniel’s leadership is to discard any possibility of unity, because ever since 1990 the process has been to exclude, exclude, exclude from the FSLN all those who express any opposition to the official policy that Daniel Ortega represents."
Lacking any visionary project and fearful of the current moment’s risks, the FSLN seems to want to cling to the myth of a glorious past to guarantee itself the captive votes that Daniel Ortega will inevitably bring in. If this vision is not shaken off, the third way could fail. Those whom the FSLN excluded earlier as well as now are fundamental to breathing life into a center alternative. If the FSLN’s many and valuable "dissidents" do not deal with the myth, if they do not review the past and move beyond the concept of "vanguard," if they fail to grasp that the "solution" is no longer inside the FSLN, will not emerge from the FSLN and will not even be headed up by the FSLN, the third way could fail. The die is cast. Sandinismo is much more than just the FSLN. The FSLN bears a huge responsibility for the current crisis, and Sandinismo has an equally huge responsibility to get us back out of it.

The center ground

The center has not been opened up by ideologies, but by a very concrete and dramatic political and historic moment. This is both an advantage and a disadvantage, though more the former. Reality can usually do more than ideologies.

There is still a lot of work to do in this "center." Patriotism and a sense of nation must prevail, because opposition to the pact is not enough of a basis of unity for the leaders of this alternative. Furthermore, if leadership in the alternative alliance is imposed or is negotiated only quantitatively—for example, based on 1996 electoral results, party membership or personal prestige—it will mean that the "alternative" is proceeding with its own miniature version of the same philosophy underlying the pact. The alternative will never be credible if the positions of power in this alliance are not assumed as a public service that presupposes sacrifice and if those assuming them are incapable of turning their back on the wealth and fame of power.

The municipal elections may still not happen. Financing for them remains up in the air, and the decision in the pact to change almost all electoral branch magistrates only months before the elections opens great possibilities of chaos, fraud or both. If they are held, however, they will serve as a crucial test of the capacity of the diverse forces that ended up in the center after the two gangs divvied up the territory to organize themselves, act and offer alternative proposals.

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