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  Number 150 | Enero 1994
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Nicaragua

NICARAGUA BRIEFS

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IS THE POLITICAL DIALOGUE REALLY GOING SOMEWHERE?

The on again off again political dialogue in Nicaragua is finally feeling the pinch of realism and sensibility from one side, and of the economic crisis from the other. Even Washington is pushing for a tripartite understanding between the government, UNO and the FSLN. All of this is accelerating the talks and the reaching of consensus as never before.

Like the previous month, the talks continued in public and in private and in all the bilateral or trilateral combinations imaginable, although bilateral meetings predominated. The difference is that, now, quantifiable and concrete advances have been made in the UNO FSLN dialogue about reforming the 1987 Constitution.

UNO and the government continued discussing their many differences and, after 12 sessions totaling over 100 hours, interlocutors say they have finally reached some important agreements. Two of them have to do with the hottest issues, the ones on which UNO has been the most insistent. One is the excessive functions that President Chamorro bestowed on her son in law and presidential minister, Antonio Lacayo, by simple decree when she took office. The other is UNO's demand that substantial government functions be assigned to Vice President Godoy who has had none whatever for three years and that UNO political leaders be given control of important ministries starting in 1994. Among those on their list are the ministries of government, the economy and finances.

MOVING TO REFORM THE CONSTITUTION

The FSLN and UNO began and concluded a more concrete dialogue in the record time of nine marathon sessions. During them they reviewed the Constitution's 202 articles and reached consensus on how to qualitatively reform 92. Only a few greater or lesser issues are still pending.

This could open the way to an essential reform of the Magna Carta which could quickly attain the required approval of two successive legislatures if passed just before the Christmas closure and again when the new session opens in January. It also virtually, and perhaps irreversibly, divided the 10 UNO parties. Six of them supported both the negotiation with the Sandinistas (necessary since UNO lacks the 60% required to pass any reform alone), and the concrete reforms that emerged. The other four (the three Liberal factions and the PNC, one of the Conservative ones), want neither the process nor the reforms to culminate successfully, though they claim to back both. To justify their reticence publicly, they give ideological arguments (that no one can trust the Sandinistas), and legalistic political ones (that prior to any reform, the UNO must "recover" the UNO majority in the National Assembly which, in fact, it never had and that the "centrist" representatives must give up their seats).

With each step they take, however, it becomes clearer that these four parties only want to drag out the crisis. Accompanied by business and church sectors and allied media, these UNO intransigents are determined to scuttle any definitive accords with the FSLN.
They hope that if they can wear down the ongoing dialogue and tense meetings long enough, the outcome could be to push up the 1996 elections. Alongside such elections, they could more legitimately realize their ambition of electing not only a new Assembly (representatives serve for six years and all come up for election at the same time), but specifically a Constituent Assembly, empowered to totally rewrite the Constitution.

These ultra rightwing parties are confident that the reapportioning of power after such elections would be much more favorable to them than could be gained by the simple reforms. The landslide majority they expect to get over the FSLN would permit them to cast off any need for understanding with the Sandinistas. Before such elections were held, they would see to it that Nicaraguans abroad could legally vote.

The FSLN, for its part, is becoming increasingly pragmatic, as are the more flexible parties in UNO, although the latter have less social representativity and a smaller political base than the intransigents. Both the FSLN and this majority of UNO parties want a national agreement, a project of political stability for the nation, which can function for at least the next three years. The constitutional reforms would be the first step of such an agreement.

A group within the government also likes and wants the reforms that have been hammered out, and supports Constitutional reforms rather than holding constituent elections. The reforms would substantially affect this group, since they would reduce the almost omniscient power of the President and her economic Cabinet to govern by decree, and would put more power in the legislative branch and sectors of civil society.

While on an official visit to Austria, President Chamorro was asked by the media about this debate among Nicaragua's politicians between constitutional reforms or drafting a new Constitution following elections for a Constituent Assembly.
Her answer left no doubt about where she stood: "I accept that certain changes be made in the Constitution through dialogue with all the political parties, the Church and everyone, but the day Nicaraguans do not want to make these small modifications in the Magna Carta that I inherited, Violeta will go home and let them all work it out among themselves!"
THE CASE AGAINST MAYOR ALEMÁN

Municipal government management in the capital and the administration of its communal goods has been questioned for over two years by the Sandinista municipal councilors and even by a sector of those belonging to UNO parties. Plugging into the political realignments now taking place, FSLN councilor Mónica Baltodano took direct action in mid November by formally accusing Managua mayor Arnoldo Alemán in the courts of mismanagement of funds, fraud and embezzlement to the detriment of the commune.

Among her accusations are that Alemán has unjustifiably increased his office's current spending by 40%, reduced investment in the commune by 46%, also unjustifiably, and increased travel expenses abroad by 152%.
The mayor admits having 16 personal bodyguards and argues that for each dollar his office spends in trips abroad, between $1 and $9 in donations come back into the country.

As the judicial process wends its way through the legal processes, the mayor has begun his own process: to shirk responsibility for the accusations by using all the legal tricks at his disposal. "This will go on forever," Alemán crowed triumphantly, after frustrating the judges' third attempt to put him on the witness stand.

It was logical that, at this moment of shifts among all the political forces, the mayor's office would become a strategic objective of all those within the FSLN, the government and UNO itself who view Alemán's "irresistible ascension" with mounting concern. Alemán's Constitutionalist Liberal Party has been acquiring more and more leadership within the UNO's group of intransigent parties. The mayor himself has ably been strengthening his personal leadership among the UNO political leaders, based on his undeniable populist charisma laced with Somocista features to say nothing of the abundant resources that flow into his hands. Alemán is, in fact, the only Nicaraguan politician that is publicly putting himself forward as a presidential candidate in the next elections. He has been doing so openly since 1992, without modesty or fear of over exposure, while the other politicians are being much more careful in this regard.

This daring is a sign of the power he already feels he has and can count on. It was thus also logical that UNO's intransigents would turn Alemán's offices and the mayor himself into the main bastion of defense in these moments of crisis. "It is the only redoubt that remains to UNO," said Communist Party leader and UNO member Elí Altamirano, with his usual preference for drama over clarity. "It is the only door still to be knocked down in the struggle for democracy." Alemán adds, in a threatening but totally assured tone, "We are capable of paralyzing the country and of changing the government."
It was equally logical that the Alemán case would draw the new dividing line within the Nicaraguan right at this moment. The most ultra rightwing and anti Sandinista political and social sectors openly rose to the mayor's defense, indifferent to the conclusive evidence Baltodano claims to have. The rest of the right remained silent or kept its distance from the affair, knowing that the charge regarding money is, at least, a hot potato. The government and President Chamorro herself are also refraining from comment.

The norm is that the central government audit the accounts of the mayors' offices. In 1993, 92 of the 143 mayors' offices in the country were audited. Alemán refused to let the Comptroller General's offices touch his accounts, arguing that neither he nor UNO accept the naming of the current comptroller nor the dismissal of the last one. The reason that process is unacceptable to them is that it was done with the vote of the current National Assembly board, which UNO does not accept because it is dominated by the "center group."
Street talk in Managua has its own criterion about the case: "The mayor steals, but he gets things done. The government steals too, but it doesn't do anything."
A RISKY BATTLE

The battle unleashed by unmasking the mayor's "thefts," both through what he has done and what he has left undone, could end up with his dismissal from his post. It is both a legal battle and a political one. Because of its legal component, it could be a very long battle.

Politically, it is strategic, but risky. If Alemán's business dealings are murky, his political connections are not only murky, but also increasingly extensive and diversified. They range from Nicaragua to the United States, especially Florida, where the anti Castro Cubans are politically and economically so powerful.

Alemán knows how to make alliances with politicians of the most varied stripes, and does so. This makes it difficult to hope for a rapid and clean victory, one that does not end up leaving many casualties. If, on the other hand, the battle is lost, Alemán would come out a larger than life hero, as well as a victim of an unjust plot. His charisma would be adorned with even more glitter. If the battle is simply protracted, the effect could be similar, giving him and his cause much more tinsel.

Alemán and his party are participating in the campaign for new regional autonomous governments in the Atlantic Coast, which will be elected next February. He is reportedly pouring tons of money into the coast, with the objective of emerging with a victory at any cost, to help his star rise.
Even though the coast has its own reality, the elections there are being seen in Managua as a valid test to measure the space that anti Sandinista intransigence and opposition to the government has, particularly since the coastal people have been so hard hit by the economic crisis. The mayor of Managua also considers them a test for his own aspirations.

A HARSH MESSAGE FROM THE BISHOPS

At the end of their meeting in mid November, in which Cardinal Obando y Bravo was elected the new president of the Bishops Conference, Nicaragua's bishops released a new pastoral message. In it they referred to the "state of mounting desperation, disappointment and almost unhealthy resignation" in which the people are living. They harshly criticized "those who enrich themselves on public posts or political positions" and reminded them that those who are in sin, "often mortal," cannot take communion. They also warned that those who practice abortion and make propaganda in favor of it, as well as those legislators and "the ruler" who ends up approving it will be excommunicated "ipso facto."
VIOLENCE AND THE COFFEE HARVEST

In a special operation, the army sent 2,000 of its troops to the coffee zones in the north, where the rearmed groups are functioning, to protect the farms and roads and guarantee that the harvest will get out. These zones produce 70% of Nicaragua's coffee.

The recontras of the "3 80 Northern Front" immediately responded that all coffee farms with an army presence will be considered a "military objective," and that any vehicle loaded with coffee coming from such farms "would be destroyed." The government estimates that the current coffee harvest will be excellent and will earn some $70 million.

Throughout November, sporadic combats took place between the army and the 3 80 group, leaving dead and wounded on both sides. This recontra group has remained relatively active, though very weakened, since its chief, "El Chacal," fled to Honduras in mid October, when the army offensive began.

According to data from the Union of Farmers and Ranchers (UNAG), the rearmed groups operating in the northern coffee zone have killed 39 farmers and kidnapped another 24, just in 1993. The groups request a ransom for their victim's freedom, a practice that has become more general throughout this year, both among the politicized groups of irregulars and among common criminals.

Meanwhile, General Humberto Ortega made public the existence of a recent and already discovered plot, prepared in Florida, to assassinate him in Managua. The plan involved exiled Nicaraguans, anti Castro Cubans and former collaborators with the CIA and with Israel's secret service. Ortega said that he had personally informed the Clinton government about the plot.

REGISTRATION OPENS FOR COAST ELECTIONS

Voter registration on the Atlantic Coast opened on Sunday, November 28, and will run for three more Sundays. Only some 13,000 eligible voters registered, but the Supreme Electoral Council expects much higher turnout in the coming weeks, since the first day was also one in which many religious activities were scheduled. The campaign itself officially opened three weeks earlier, on November 6.

Both the North and the South Autonomous Atlantic Regions (RAAN and RAAS) will elect 45 new members to their autonomous Regional Councils on February 27, 1994. The FSLN is running candidates, as are several UNO parties, among which Mayor Alemán's PLC is the most active. Although the UNO coalition won the majority of seats in the RAAS in 1990, and thus elected one of its own as the Regional Coordinator, UNO per se will not put forward any candidates this time. Non party groupings, such as the Miskito organization YATAMA, are allowed to run candidates through a petition process, which several groupings are now taking the steps to do. YATAMA has been badly divided for the past several years, and reportedly cannot agree on candidates.

CENTRAL AMERICA GOES TO CLINTON

The six Central American Presidents brunched with President Clinton in Washington on November 30, to discuss aspects of the free trade agreement. Although that treaty will jeopardize the economies of the isthmus, Clinton made no proposals, just promises. Also offering nothing concrete, he suggested making Central America a Pilot Project of Sustained Environmental Development.

One very concrete and positive result for Nicaragua was Clinton's positive response to President Chamorro's request that the $48 million in US aid for 1993, frozen since July, be released.

PRIVATIZATION LAW APPROVED

With the 39 votes of the FSLN bench in the Assembly neither UNO nor the "center group" voted a law that will regulate future privatizations by the state was passed. It establishes that health, education and social security cannot be privatized, and that it is the state's function to direct, plan, supervise and provide norms for the following public services: drinking water, energy, petroleum, telecommunications, mail, ports, airports, customs, roads and highways, culture, sports, basic grains storage and the media. The law also establishes that the privatization process cannot favor close blood relatives or relatives by marriage of government officials.

Government sources say that the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund were displeased with the law, and expect the President to veto it.

AUSTRIA AND SPAIN COME TO THE AID

In mid November, President Chamorro made an official visit to Austria and Spain. The Austrian government has stressed its cooperation with Nicaragua among all the countries of the South since the years of the Sandinista revolution, and pledged to continue doing so. Spain again renegotiated Nicaragua's debt, pardoning two thirds of it, thus reducing it to $86 million. The Spanish government also provided Nicaragua a new $74 million credit.

NO TO TOXIC WASTE

The National Assembly passed a law prohibiting the trafficking and handling of toxic waste and contaminated substances throughout the national territory. Various ghost companies in the United States have proposed "dirty deals" to the Nicaraguan government to get it to receive the poisonous garbage the US wants to dispose of (see "Selling Sewage Sludge," in this issue).

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