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  Number 212 | Marzo 1999
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Nicaragua

NICARAGUA BRIEFS

Nitlápan-Envío team

CLINTON'S VISIT

President Clinton's March 8 visit to Nicaragua lasted seven hours. The central act took place at the base of the Casita volcano in Posoltega, one of the main symbols of the human and physical destruction that Mitch caused in the region, where Clinton promised US$956 more in aid for the whole Central American region. He also unveiled a plaque from the United States set there in memory of the thousands who died in Casita's avalanche of mud on October 30. Inexplicably, the plaque's message, "In memory of the souls that were lost," has a negative theological connotation, particularly in Catholic tradition.

President Alemán's event organizers did not send an invitation to his nemesis, Comptroller General Agustín Jarquín, and tried to limit the participation of Felícita Zeledón, the Sandinista mayor of Posoltega, to a group reception. Not one to let such contemptuous behavior go uncriticized, she let it be known through the media that she was not pleased. "How nice," she commented wryly, "that I am allowed to be present when guests come to visit my home." She made clear that she planned to communicate with President Clinton by passing him a letter if she was not allowed to do so in person. With that, the US Embassy reportedly stepped in to assure a brief meeting between the two.

GOVERNMENT CENTRALISM GROWING

By a presidential decree of January 22, Arnoldo Alemán contradicted the proclaimed objective of "reducing the state" by establishing a new tier in state bureaucracy. The resulting Departmental and Regional Secretariats will ostensibly supervise and coordinate the activities of all state dependencies in the respective territories and report to the Presidential Office on the activities of their functionaries. On February 25, the President swore in 12 of the new Secretaries, of which 5 were Somocista legislators.

In the North Atlantic Autonomous Region, strong opposition to Jaime Chow, the President's designate, led to a political crisis that that left the opposition with a 25 to 20 majority in the Regional Council. The 1999 budget bill assigns each of these secretaries 1.9 million córdobas to carry out their work, a disproportionate amount when compared to the paltry budget earmarked for the municipal governments and the autonomous regional governments on the coast. These new positions undermine municipal and particularly coast autonomy, and strengthen presidential centralism in the bargain. Given the ever knottier confusion between state and party that characterizes the Alemán government, the secretaries probably have the undeclared mission of coordinating the campaign of Alemán's Constitutionalist Liberal Party for the municipal elections in October 2000 and the presidential ones the following year.
Meanwhile, a shortfall equivalent to over US$7 million between what the electoral branch of government requested and the executive branch granted will make it extremely difficult to organize the municipal elections effectively. Municipal mapping and the issuing of voter registration cards, both essential to the election process, will be seriously effected by the cut. Within the FSLN-government pact, Liberals and Sandinistas have discussed postponing these municipal elections until 2001, the same time as the presidential ones. This would favor the interest of both parties in discouraging voters from opting for third-party municipal candidates by making the voting process too complicated. It was demonstrated in 1996 that when faced with multiple ballots, voters are more apt to mark the same box, representing the same party, on each ballot.

PRO-GOVERNMENT DAILY TO HIT THE STREETS

On March 1, Journalists' Day, President Alemán announced that a new Managua daily newspaper, La Noticia, will come out in mid-year. The paper belongs to Alemán and a group of Liberal businessmen and—would you believe it?—will have a pro- government line. In subsequent months, three regional dailies will also appear: Flecha del Oriente, Flecha del Occidente and Flecha del Norte. The only way the arrow (flecha) does not point is south. In making the announcement, Alemán acknowledged what he called the "great error" of his government: "The only area in which my government is failing and has a major weakness is in communication." The President's ongoing conflicts with journalists from various media confirm this assessment, but it remains to be seen whether doing an end run around them is the solution to his government's communication problems.

ENITEL ON THE LINE

It has been learned that ENITEL, the state-owned telecommunications company, directly contracted the US firm MasTec to install 100,000 new telephone lines and carry out some engineering work in September 1998, at a cost of $100 million. The problem is that it never requested authorization from the Office of Comptroller General (CGR) to dispense with the normal bidding process, as it is legally required to do. The CGR has asked ENITEL for an explanation of this huge unauthorized contract, reportedly designed to pave the way for privatizing ENITEL. Although the communications company is the most profitable of all state enterprises, only two foreign companies are interested in investing in it: MasTec itself and Telefónica Española, whose affiliate SINTEL was bought by MasTec some years ago. MasTec was started by Jorge Mas Canosa, deceased president of the National Cuban-American Foundation, which represents the most violent rightwing sector of the Cuban exile community. Mas Canosa's family still maintains the tight links that he initiated some years ago with President Alemán.

Direct contracting is occasionally permitted to avoid a bidding process for one reason or another. The CGR authorized it for expediency purposes at the beginning of November, following the Mitch emergency, to cut through time-consuming red tape. But if it is done without requesting permission, it can logically be assumed that the goal is also to escape CGR auditing. At the end of February, the CGR resolved to put an end to its easy post-Mitch authorization, but only days later President Alemán sent the National Assembly a new bill on Administrative Contracting by the State, which seeks to sidestep the CGR's monitoring eyes altogether.

CONTROVERSIAL CASE OF THE CBTS

The Comptroller General's Office released a report at the end of January alleging penal responsibility on the part of Pablo Pereira, Minister of Economy during the Chamorro government. The problem revolved around his ministry's granting of Tax Benefit Certificates (CBTs) to three exporting companies belonging to the Hermoso and Vigil group, which allegedly defrauded the state to the tune of $19 million. The CGR forwarded the report to the courts, which led to the interrogation of several Chamorro administration officials.

The CGR investigation caused a huge stir since it was the first case in which high officials of the previous government have been accused of criminal activity. The CBTs benefited 155 exporting firms, and according to the investigation, became a way for some to turn profits in the millions through a very discretionary use of power. The judicial investigations further demonstrated that the Hermoso and Vigil firms—in which Pereira himself was a stockholder—were in the "ghost" export business, for example exporting sand instead of gold to non-existent companies abroad, which led to suspicions that they were acting as a channel for money laundering. After contradictory declarations by the functionaries implicated and judicial scheming by their defense lawyer, the suit was paralyzed at the beginning of March.

National Assembly Paralyzed for 40 Days

The National Assembly was unable to meet for a full 40 days after its inaugural session of the new year. At first no one made a move because the President had not given the "signal" for the board of directors to initiate regular plenary sessions. Next, the Sandinista bench, which Daniel Ortega himself has been leading since the start of the year, took over the parliamentary hall for 15 days, with banners, posters and red and black bandanas to block all legislative work until the board introduced social legislation onto the agenda. That action finally ended on February 23, after a bilateral meeting between Ortega and Alemán whose results are not entirely clear. It is estimated that over 100 bills, some introduced as far back as 1996, are gathering dust on Assembly shelves due to a lack of any political will on the part of the power blocs linked to the government-FSLN pact to even study their legal merit, much less debate them.

The plenary finally opened with the debate on the 1999 budget bill. In addition to the lines questioned by the comptroller's office (see "The Month," this issue), opposition representatives challenged the notably increased allocations to the education and labor ministries and the Rural Development Institute (IDR). Since all three institutions are headed by top figures of the governing Constitutionalist Liberal Party, the opposition suspects that these funds may be used for proselytizing in preparation for next year's municipal election. Eduardo Mena, the IDR director, also administers Alemán's personal farms, which could lead a suspicious mind to other hypotheses. Finally, while Alemán opposes increasing the measly 2% of the budget assigned to the 145 municipal mayors, he did increase the lines for the central government's own Emergency Social Investment Fund (FISE), Secretariat of Social Action and Institute of Municipal Development (INIFOM), all of which work in the municipalities and are also headed by PLC directors.

President's Fiancée Now a Government Official

María Fernando Flores Lanzas, a 30-year-old Nicaraguan-US citizen who taught high school in Miami until recently, returned to Nicaragua in mid-February as President Alemán's future wife. On March 1 she started work in the Ministry of Education as a consultant for the APRENDE project, the most important project that the World Bank is financing in this country.

SCHOOL YEAR STARTS ONLY FOR SOME

The new school year began in public schools across the country on February 15, but it is estimated that over 200,000 boys and girls, 20% of the school-age population, will not be able to go to school because of their families' precarious economic situation. Of those who do attend classes, one in ten will receive their lessons sitting on the ground. Some public schools have instituted a new policy of charging students 20-30 córdobas (roughly $2) a month as a way of allocating use of the insufficient number of writing chairs. Behold the invisible hand of the market!

AND LET NICARAGUA'S TEACHERS EAT CAKE!

According to a region-wide study released at the end of February, Nicaragua has the lowest public investment in education of any country in Central America. While the annual education budget in Costa Rica is US$657 million, in El Salvador $320 million and in Panama $280 million, in Nicaragua it is only $126 million, which includes $60 million in foreign donations and loans. Not surprisingly, the study also revealed that the salary range for Nicaraguan teachers is the skimpiest in the region. Costa Rican teachers earn the equivalent of $425-550 a month, Salvadorans $400-500 and Panamanians $358-580, while Nicaraguans only receive between $60 and $120.

PEASANTS HIT BY MITCH WILL GET THE CRUMBS

The Alemán government announced in mid-February that it was allocating 100 million córdobas for credits to small producers affected by Hurricane Mitch. A number of nongovernmental organizations that provide credit to rural small and micro producers are interested in intermediating some of these funds. But they fear that the stiff interest and other conditions imposed by the government combined with the advantageous facilities it is granting commercial banks for the same purpose mean that most of the money will end up in the hands of those who need it least. The five most important NGOs that work in agricultural activities—Nitlapán, CEPAD, FAMA, CARUNA and FONDEFER— have already placed 70% of their available current credit portfolio in the rural zones devastated by Mitch.

CUBA'S MEDICAL SOLIDARITY

By the end of January, the number of Cuban doctors and paramedics working in the Central American and Caribbean countries affected by the climatic disasters last year had climbed to 880. They are donating their highly skilled labor in Haiti, which was hit by the fury of Hurricane Georges, and in the most remote parts of Nicaragua, Honduras and Guatemala, battered by Mitch soon afterward. Of these men and women, 64 are working in Nicaragua.

In the other direction, 340 young men and women from very poor rural communities went to Cuba in February to study medicine, thus fulfilling the Cuban government's promises to its Central American counterparts following the Mitch disaster. For their part, the youths have pledged to practice medicine in their own communities when they come back after their six year stint studying.

NO MORE FOREST FIRES!

A sizable group of civil society organizations invited President Alemán and officials of other state institutions to the first National Meeting for the Prevention and Control of Forest Fires on March 4. The objective is to study joint initiatives aimed at avoiding a repetition of what happened in 1998, when 15,000 agricultural and forest fires ended up razing over half a million hectares, causing losses valued at over $127 million. The President did not attend, but Agricultural and Forestry Minister Mario de Franco did. Among the initiatives proposed was to include environmental crime in the soon-to-be-reformed Penal Code, as well as demarcate and legislate indigenous lands and approve the Forestry Law.

CASITA VOLCANO: NOT THE FIRST MUDSLIDE

The results of a Nicaraguan Institute of Territorial Studies (INETER) report on the safety zones in Posoltega municipality were presented at the beginning of February. Posoltega is where Hurricane Mitch's torrential rains caused a massive mudslide down the side of the Casita volcano and out onto the plain on October 30, burying over 2,000 people in a matter of minutes. According to the report, besides the nearly 4,000 acres that were covered by the mudslide, roughly another 8,000 are uninhabitable and should only be used for agricultural production, cattle-rearing or reforestation. Boundary markers will set off the uninhabitable zone. The investigation also discovered that an even greater mudslide occurred on Casita over 2,000 years ago.

DOMESTIC VIOLENCE ON THE RISE

A National Police (PN) report showed that the figures of intra-family and sexual crimes, particularly those categorized as "lesions," increased again in 1998. The PN recorded 15,820 such cases last year. Rape was the category with the most reported cases (1,264) while incest accounted for the fewest (28). Of the rape cases, 58% occurred within the home and the rapists were known or were even family members. Women and girls constituted 87% of the victims (20% were under 13 years old and 40% between 13 and 17). Among the males raped, half were under 13. It is the conviction of all organizations working on behalf of women's rights and against domestic violence that these documented cases are only the tip of an infinitely larger iceberg.

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