The Pact’s First Offspring
The pact has given birth to a new dynamic in Nicaragua,
but the future of its offspring is still uncertain. The coming months will tell whether they will grow healthy, remain runts, or pass into oblivion.
The consummation of the pact between Arnoldo Alemán and Daniel Ortega has created a new dynamic and a new correlation of forces in the country, although they are barely noticeable so far. As in any such change, the break with the past is incomplete. The script of the play in which we have all been participating—or in most cases, only observing—still feels similar, but the new act, which opened with the institutional and legal changes resulting from the pact, has different nuances. It is more dramatic, riskier, even more provocative.
The pact has also given birth to new characters, though their future is still uncertain. By restricting the conditions for participation in the municipal elections this November to the extreme, this political deal has triggered a realignment of all political forces. For openers, the reformed Electoral Law drastically reduced the number of electoral options and even of political parties, forcing alliances, deals, expulsions and adoptions.
Traditional chips on a There is little new in the "new" options spawned by the electoral reforms. Two known political faces who also happen to be bankers—Haroldo Montealegre and Alvaro Robelo—have joined forces under the banner of Arriba la República (Up with the Republic, née Up Nicaragua in 1996). They propose to dollarize the economy, put a lid on customs and establish English as a second language. Camino Cristiano (Christian Way)—the party through which the evangelicals made their political debut in 1996, winning third place—chose Carlos Guadamuz, the Sandinista radio director recently expelled from the FSLN, as its candidate for mayor of Managua. A second evangelical party, the Christian Unity Movement, also emerged and is trying to distance itself from Camino Cristiano. The Conservatives, with Noel Vidaurre and Pedro Solórzano, pulled in the Liberals from the Independent Liberal Party (PLI) and a group of Social Democrats, but without renouncing their traditional green banner under the argument that you can’t just abandon 180 years of history. Dissident Liberals from President Arnoldo Alemán’s Constitutionalist Liberal Party (PLC) are trying to patch together a new option and a fresh image, while their opposite number—Conservatives loyal to Alemán—have obtained legal status for their grouping, which calls itself ALCON. It is likely that the 23 parties that participated in the 1996 elections will be reduced to 10 at the outside by November.
smaller game board
Not all these alternatives are opposed to the pact, and not all that are share the same reasons. The only thing they do share so far is that they aren’t in the pact, given its exclusionary two-caudillo-only character, which is forcing them to seek new allies. Meanwhile, the PLC’s internal battles are now out in the open and the crisis that has been visibly battering the FSLN for some time is beginning to bleed it dry. Several high-level FSLN leaders who disagree with the pact have even been threatened with expulsion in recent weeks, and tensions plagued the party’s internal popular consultation in most municipalities to select municipal council and mayoral candidates.
On March 1, five days after announcing that he would run for mayor of Managua on the Camino Cristiano ticket, the popular Sandinista radio entrepreneur Carlos Guadamuz was sentenced to two years in jail for heading up a tumultuous fight in Managua’s Municipal Council at the end of May 1999. The pro-Ortega leanings of the Sandinista judge who sentenced him and the symbolic weight of the date chosen for this maneuver—Journalists’ Day—did not go unnoticed. Nor did the fact that the case had lain dormant for months and was unexpectedly dusted off only when Guadamuz had finally found a political banner for his candidacy. Forty-eight hours later, Guadamuz posted a bond that allowed him to be confined to his home and reached a bilateral agreement with his accuser. Guadamuz blamed the FSLN general secretary for the whole operation, which he insisted was aimed at undermining his candidacy.
Days later, evangelical pastor Miguel Angel Casco was removed from the FSLN National Directorate for having expressed solidarity with Guadamuz and for disagreeing with some of the FSLN’s electoral strategies. There was also talk of expelling the four FSLN legislators who opposed both the pact and Daniel Ortega’s presidential candidacy: Mónica Baltodano, Angelita Ríos, José González and Carlos Fonseca Terán, son of the FSLN founder.
The third wayAmid all the movements of well-known chips on a game board shrunk by the pact, and with the game’s new rules tightly sewn up, a new alliance called the Democratic Movement stands out as the most novel and sensible.
The majority of Nicaragua’s politicians are unwilling to give up the game, but equally loathe to give up anything else, including their own fears. The Democratic Movement is the only group that has set off on the difficult road of electoral participation by publicly committing itself to certain sacrifices. It is a noble and notable gesture in a country where opportunism still prevails despite the dramatic current situation. (The testimony in this issue by Sandinista Renovation Movement leader Dora María Téllez, one of the forgers of the Democratic Movement, offers more information on this new alliance and its necessary sacrifices.)
It is also the only group that has acted on its proclaimed willingness to include a gamut of diverse interests and politicians of distinct stripes, although all share the common denominator of proven political experience. Not one of them has a trajectory that is not controversial to the rest of the group and to society. This Nicaraguan-style "third way" cropped up with a determination to unite this society’s energies, dispersed in the past 20 years of superimposed ruptures and unassimilated crises, which have produced a prolonged sense of national stress.
One observer, recalling the heterogeneous alliance that put the Somocista dictatorship in check between 1978 and 1979, called the Democratic Movement "the closest thing I have seen to the Group of Twelve." Sandinismo is present in this new alliance, with its agenda, its principles and its organizational experience, and it is not in the minority. It is there struggling for democracy, while on the other side of the street the FSLN is busy attacking it. This presence, which gives the Democratic Movement a center-left character, is significant, because Sandinismo is indispensable to the effort to pull Nicaragua out of its crisis.
Several important figures in Nicaraguan political life have shown interest in hitching their wagons to the star of this group of many more than twelve. Among them are recently retired army chief Joaquín Cuadra, a Sandinista; former comptroller general Agustín Jarquín, a Social Christian; and former President Violeta de Chamorro, unaffiliated.
General Cuadra, who has headed the Nicaraguan Army since General Humberto Ortega’s retirement five years ago, passed into retirement on February 21, the anniversary of General Augusto Sandino’s assassination. General Javier Carrión, who follows Cuadra in the line of command, will fill his post. Only one day after his retirement, Cuadra told reporters that "I feel that the ideas that pushed me as a youth to assume a political attitude, join the guerrilla movement and struggle against Somoza, are still alive in my heart. I was motivated by the people’s abandonment, poverty and marginalization, by the class differences. Now, after so many years, I see a very similar Nicaragua again in many respects, above all in the poverty. I feel one has to do something, to organize in some way. I can’t just go happily back home." His declarations had a major impact because he openly criticized the Alemán-Ortega pact for closing political spaces and not responding to the nation’s needs. He also clearly distanced himself from the top FSLN leadership, especially Daniel Ortega, and expressed sympathy with the Democratic Movement, reaffirming his own Sandinista identity and differentiating between Sandinismo and the FSLN.
CSE: First indicationsThe road ahead will not be easy for the Democratic Movement. The newly juggled Supreme Electoral Council (CSE) leadership will hinder every step in its consolidation, and if the movement does manage to get past these hurdles and consolidate as a genuine alternative, the game is likely to get dirty. The first indications of how the new CSE will proceed are already visible. The pact’s anti-democratic and exclusionary aims have already tainted the electoral branch, which wasted no time in applying the discretion guaranteed it by the newly-reformed Electoral Law. We can expect to see this discretion applied even more widely, and to be followed by preparations for fraud. In an extreme case, depending on how the winds blow, the CSE might even pull out its ace in the hole, suspending the municipal elections altogether, claiming insufficient funding. The way is paved for such a move since even the new budget reforms the Presidency sent to the National Assembly include no funds for the elections.
It is not yet known who will be elected to fill the five magistrate posts in the CSE only two months before the electoral campaign formally begins, but meanwhile, the new CSE authorities have unilaterally fired the directors of electoral mapping and statistics and of voter ID cards. Those are two areas of strategic importance in ensuring clean elections.
So far then, the pact has given birth to a reformed electoral branch whose first steps do not augur well and has sparked the emergence of a third-way alliance that offers some room for optimism. While the pact is closing spaces, insulting people’s intelligence and crushing everything in its path, might it also inadvertently give birth to a new political awareness that finally opts for honesty, professionalism, tolerance, institutions and law? Might this new consciousness put all these powerful democratic tools to work to tackle the gigantic problem of poverty, and to engage in a genuine nation-building project? Could it be that we have learned something from the many lessons, both positive and negative, of these past 20 years?
Targeting the NGOsIn December, when then-comptroller general Agustín Jarquín was released from prison to watch the consummation of the Alemán-Ortega pact that would soon pervert the purpose of his own institution, Jarquín proposed a referendum to ratify or reject the constitutional reforms agreed to in the pact. The idea was immediately seconded by other institutions and political figures, and efforts got underway to begin collecting the 50,000 signatures constitutionally required to request a plebiscite.
Among the first to join the effort was Ana Quirós, national liaison for the Civil Coordinator for Emergency and Reconstruction (CCER), an umbrella organization that emerged immediately after the Hurricane Mitch tragedy to coordinate the activities of some 350 NGOs that were initiating various projects all over the country. The CCER also drafted and fought for an alternative reconstruction proposal from civil society that it presented at the donor meetings in Washington and Stockholm, earning the respect of international cooperation. The fact that Quirós is a nationalized Nicaraguan of Costa Rican-Mexican origin gave Alemán a pretext for reopening the assault on NGOs with which he kicked off his mandate in 1997.
He is brandishing two arguments in this case, both of them anti-democratic and unconstitutional. The first is that NGOs cannot express political opinions, because political opinions and policy-making are the exclusive missions of parties. Ergo, it becomes necessary to review the legal status of all NGOs. The second is that even foreigners who are nationalized Nicaraguans have no right to get involved in politics or to express political opinions. Ergo, it becomes necessary to review their migratory status.
Based on these arguments, the government initiated a campaign of threats and insults. The President accused the NGOs of being "bureaucratic enterprises that deal in the poverty of Nicaraguans." He also crudely remarked that it is easy to create an NGO in Nicaragua: "You get a couple of people together and proclaim yourselves representatives of civil society." Minister of Government René Herrera harshly asked the international community to demand an accounting from the NGOs, which he said "are articulating their demands outside the law" and turning into "substitute" political parties that "speak out against the government and discredit democracy."
The government then ordered the National Institute of Statistics and Census to audit the nearly two thousand entities that qualify as NGOs, hundreds of which are working without having registered and without legal status. Through one of its few loyal media, it also unleashed a campaign designed to question the NGOs and confuse the citizenry about their goals. "The NGOs receive a lot of money in your name and you have a right to their help. Go to the NGO closest to you and tell them your greatest needs," proposed a spot on Radio Corporación, while other government spokespeople accused the NGOs and the "internationalists" working in them of having introduced bad customs and sexual licentiousness into the country.
A pacted political campaignAgainst all reason, the campaign against the NGOs mounted, and it is unlikely that it will stop before bagging some trophies—at least some important ones, if not all those it is stalking. The campaign is not a judicial one in that it has nothing to do with whether their papers are in order or whether they have legally acquired status and for how long they have had it. It is eminently political, and by commission or omission, the FSLN is accompanying the government in it. Both power groups mistrust the NGOs, viewing them as competition outside their control. Both want them completely off the game board.
The style of the anti-NGO offensive carries the pact’s seal: anyone who is left outside the circuit of the pact or opts to be outside of it will be decreed legally dead. This includes the NGOs, even though the definition of NGOs—non-profit civil associations—says nothing about them having to be apolitical. It includes them even though the government has been forced to share debates and decisions regarding state policies with the NGOs and the CCER itself, and not only in Managua but also in forums with the post-Mitch consultative group in Washington and Stockholm. And it includes them even though one of the commitments the government made in Stockholm was precisely that it would provide participatory spaces in national decision-making to representatives of civil society. Last but far from least, it includes the NGOs even though the funds they receive—estimated at around $100 million annually—and the projects they implement with these funds relieve the government of many of its social responsibilities.
Critical eyes, free handsThe NGOs are not nor should they be the representatives of civil society, either in Nicaragua or in any other part of the world. It is true that among the hundreds of NGOs that exist in Nicaragua right now, some are merely bureaucratic shells or offices providing services of a debatable bureaucratic logic. The same is true of NGOs as of any institution, social organization or professional association: in all fields, bearded darnel grows among the wheat and the two are indistinguishable at first glance.
The constructive relationship between NGOs and organized civil society is still weak in Nicaragua; there is a long way to go and many discussions to be had. The Alemán-Ortega pact seeks to abort this process with an avalanche of ill will toward the NGOs, clearly aimed at making them disappear. Why does it want to do this? Because even with their mistakes and their gaps, they are one of the few remaining autonomous spaces for reflection and criticism, and potentially for organizing the citizenry’s discontent and indignation. The Liberal government and the FSLN need to rid themselves of the NGOs’ critical eyes and autonomous hands.
The pact has thrown the NGOs a tremendous challenge. If they don’t defend themselves with all means at their disposal, including in the street, with their bases, validating peoples’ endorsement, their legal status and arenas of action could be stripped from them, one by one. To defend themselves, they need the support of the people they work with, and to get that support they need to overcome years of political apathy and detachment from the social movements, even from the very people with whom they work. Unless they get off this road, they will be unable to respond to the pact’s challenge.
The pact could shake the NGOs out of their depolitization or their "lite" politization. Will it end up giving birth to a new consciousness among NGOs, a new social alliance in which they, who for so many years have served the communities with a proud political neutrality, tighten their links with the social movements?
Collegiate comptroller’s officeIf the Supreme Electoral Council’s first steps presaged a murky electoral scene, the first steps of the retooled Office of Comptroller General (CGR) were no more encouraging. The CGR is the other state institution directly affected by the pact, in that its single director post has been changed into a collegiate structure of five comptrollers.
After only a month of activities by the CGR’s new Superior Council, there are already several indications of where this watchdog institution is headed. One of its first moves was to fire some of the staff responsible for the strategic investigations already underway. This was followed by the council’s request that the Supreme Court quickly resolve all the recourses to protection filed by government officials named in the reports on illicit activities filed by Agustín Jarquín when he was comptroller general. The idea seems to be to wipe all these cases off the books and start anew, without, of course, finding any of the accused guilty of wrongdoing or recommending their removal from their top posts.
There is also the CGR’s open declaration that evaluating the presidential project to reform the Law of Disposition of State Goods is outside of its competence. This reform would raise to a million dollars the value of state assets that the President can dispose of unilaterally, without getting the approval of parliament or the comptroller’s office. Its current relevance has to do with the dismantling of the Area of Workers’ Property (APT), the titles of which are still in state hands, which is discussed below.
The worst sign of all is the way the new collegiate body has boxed in Jarquín. Even though he is one of the five comptrollers, all of his functions have been taken away and he has been publicly accused of heading a corrupt administration, while lawsuits and judicial recourses hanging over his head could prevent him from holding public office in the future.
Scandinavian countries The international community reacted to all these negative signs in a way the government was not expecting. The Scandinavian countries—Sweden, Norway, Finland and Denmark—froze for one year the remaining $3 million it had earmarked for the CGR’s institutional strengthening. The donors minced no words in explaining that the program, initiated in 1998, was suspended because the decision to create the new collegiate structure had no technical basis. It was rather a fundamental piece in a dubious political agreement with the declared objective of politicizing state institutions, and doing so along exclusively bipartisan lines. And at least in the case of the comptrollers’ office, the undeclared objective is to hide or mediate the corruption committed by both power groups.
Though the freeze is temporary, during which time the donor countries will observe the evolution of the CGR to decide whether to reestablish the aid, the message was forceful. The amount of aid is not colossal, but the suspension is a significant warning bell, given that aid from the Scandinavian countries represents a third of all the bilateral aid that Nicaragua receives from the world’s governments.
Even stronger What other international reactions have the pact and the institutional reforms provoked? The US ambassador has defended the pact both explicitly and implicitly in the name of national "stability," which his country pragmatically sees as important to regional stability. The only concern that the powerful neighbor to the North has about "instability" is that it could increase emigration and drug trafficking activities to the United States. Thus, just ten years after the US empire was worried enough to finance and direct wars in the region, its foreign policy in Central America has been reduced to detaining emigrants and drugs.
The Europeans’ vision is broader and more strategic, and their policy is even beginning to influence international financing institutions. Only a few months before the Alemán-Ortega pact was consummated, the World Bank, IMF and other multilateral lending agencies began to converge with the bilateral donors—particularly the Europeans—in conditioning their aid to Nicaragua on the new parameters of governance and transparency. This convergence appears to be applying significant pressure against the closing down of institutionality, and the Scandinavian countries’ reaction is coherent with this policy.
Will the pact turn out to have encouraged the international community to adopt a firmer attitude and therefore to collaborate in putting the brakes on the domestic excesses and helping strengthen national opposition without replacing or overshadowing it?
Economic roots of the pactEveryone already knows that the pact’s roots lie in the fact that the two groups involved are defending their quotas of economic power and sharing out traditional and new economic spaces between them. One of many examples of this is the bill to privatize Social Security. This unjust bill, challenged by both employers and employees, by both active workers and pensioners, will transform security into insecurity and relieve the state of its responsibility to the working population. It will open the market in pension fund administration to new and lucrative private companies with capital from both PLC and FSLN leaders.
Another expression of the pact’s economic motivations was revealed in February, when the President, backed by the FSLN, proposed a reform to the Law of Urban and Rural Property, which the two sides had hammered out in December 1997. This reform will finally allow what is known as the Area of Workers’ Property (APT)—the agricultural and agroindustrial enterprises leased to their workers with an option to buy during the early years of the Chamorro government—to be titled to their worker-owners. That may appear at first glance like a good thing, but there is no altruism whatever in the move. Most of the worker-owners are stuck in a vicious circle in which they have been ineligible for the production credits that would have helped them generate income to pay off their debts, while the debts gave the government the excuse not to put the properties in their names. After some seven years of this situation, many of the properties are now run down and even bankrupt. At this late date, titles will only permit the alienated and disillusioned owners to mortgage the properties to get out from under the accumulated debts, but there will be nothing left over for working capital, a situation that lends itself to state embargoes and the appearance of new buyers. Both Liberal and Sandinista business investors have had their eyes on these intrinsically valuable properties for some time, and they will surely now go for a song.
Both the secret bilateral drafting of the Property Law in 1997 and its contents make it a clear precursor to today’s pact. One among many of the problems that that law supposedly aimed to "resolve"—even though it was barely applied afterwards—was that of the APT properties. Affected by the Chamorro government’s exclusionary credit and economic policies, many of them were already bankrupt even then. It was also evident that the neoliberal credit policies were only partly responsible for the failure of the worker self-management scheme. Another reason was the opportunism of unscrupulous union leaders who, together with the new Sandinista economic groups, began buying up workers’ shares in the best properties and in some cases appropriating international solidarity resources for themselves. Since the process by which these businesses landed in their workers’ hands lacked even a minimal legal framework and thus any transparency, it was a roiling river that obviously benefited the big anglers.
At the time the 1997 Property Law was passed, the Liberal government calculated that the APT enterprises as a whole owed the government US$40 million, thus justifying the decision to maintain the policy of neither titling the properties in the workers’ names or providing any production credits. The signing of the law forestalled possible embargoes of the properties, but did not resolve the underlying problem. Given the value of the properties in question, this problem has been a key bargaining chip for the FSLN during the pact negotiations, since it considers these properties to be its patrimony. Titling them is only the first step; the second will be to buy them up legally, so they can be added up to the already significant assets of the business sector that controls the party’s commanding heights today.
Rural violence?During the seven years of the Chamorro administration, top officials of both that government and the one it defeated in 1990 voraciously followed "free" market policies. By the time Chamorro ended her term in office, thousands of small beneficiaries of the revolutionary transformations in the rural area had been forced to sell off to big landowners the lands that the revolution had made available to them.
This agrarian counter-reform has been intensifying even more since 1997. One qualified observer recently told envío that "Salvadorans and Mexicans are buying up the country, and we’re not talking about capitalists with clean money here, they’re mafias." Is this speculation or reality? There are no precise figures, but there is evidence.
According to Sandinista sociologist Orlando Núñez, the ideologue behind the APT, over 2.5 million acres of agrarian reform land have already passed into the hands of Salvadoran, Guatemalan and Panamanian landowners, as well as some two hundred "nouveau riche" Nicaraguans. The latter are of all political stripes, but the FSLN’s red and black seems to predominate. Only about 850,000 acres remain to be appropriated to complete this return to the pre-revolutionary system of large, absentee property owners, and they will surely be gobbled up once the new Property Law reform facilitates their titling. In the judgment of those affected, the reform will simply deal the final blow, legalizing the dispossessions already carried out over these years.
The pact will thus represent the end of the agrarian reform and all the transformations that the Sandinista revolution initiated in the rural area. As a by-product, it may also engender a new wave of violence in the countryside.
Another generation One by one, we have witnessed the disappearance of what in the 1990s were called the "conquests of the revolution." What then remains of that glorious and dramatic period in Nicaragua? One thing is the various generations of those who made it happen. The youngest of those generations is made up of those who exactly 20 years ago participated in the National Literacy Crusade as high school and college students. For five months, these urban youth went to live with peasant families in the furthest reaches of the country, working alongside them in their backbreaking labor during the day, and sharing their meager food and sleeping on their uncomfortable pallets at night. In the evening, by the dim light of a kerosene lamp and using black plastic for chalkboards, they taught their hosts to read and write, sometimes even to think and discuss. In so doing, they not only transformed the lives of thousands upon thousands of peasant men and women, but became transformed themselves, filled with the confidence that they could change reality.
in the wings?
Maybe, just maybe, the most valuable birth of the pact might be that this generous generation, now dispersed and unorganized, will decide to participate more actively on the new and risky national stage.