The Way Out of the Labyrinth Is Long, but Possible
In Nicaragua’s labyrinth, all paths interconnect: the political, the economic, the social, the cultural and the religious. One finds a way out of one only to be trapped in another. There is an exit, but it’s not just around the corner.
With half his term now behind him, President Bolaños is “already history” in the opinion of some analysts. Although he still appears to see his glass as half full rather than half empty, Nicaragua’s political world has begun to focus on who will succeed him and what course his successor will choose. Whoever it is will have so few choices, however, that it’s hard to understand why the ambition to don the presidential sash is so all consuming.
PLC Convention: Much ado about nothingThe Liberal Constitutionalist Party (PLC) convention, held on July 11 to celebrate the 111th anniversary of President José Zelaya’s Liberal revolution, offered no surprises—except to any who anticipated some public rapprochement with the new Alliance for the Republic (APRE) to keep a split rightwing vote from handing the FSLN avoidable municipal victories. The convention members—all loyal to former President Arnoldo Alemán—dutifully ratified his list of preferred municipal candidates for the upcoming elections and cheered a taped speech in which he railed at APRE and the FSLN. He called the former traitors and ingrates and the latter enemies whose “fiesta of hate and vengeance will not enable them to enjoy the false joy that they celebrate today.” In fact, Alemán, who three weeks earlier was moved from his new jail cell to a comfortable ward of the Military Hospital for minor surgery on two fingers of his right hand, choreographed the entire event. Due to “complications” in the 20-minute operation, he was still there at the time of the convention, receiving more than 20 visits a day from party leaders and even top Bolaños government officials who came to discuss the labyrinthine national politics with their caudillo.
How long will judges and other functionaries go on granting such expensive privileges to a man convicted of embezzling more than the entire year’s health budget from the state? Unable to do anything about it, Nicaraguan public opinion is becoming inured to his special treatment.
25th Sandinista anniversary: Pardon from the hierarchyJuly’s other major celebration, the 25th anniversary of the Sandinista revolution, also brought few surprises—except to any who thought the event merited some minimal content. The one major surprise had already come weeks earlier: a rapprochement between FSLN leader Daniel Ortega and Cardinal Miguel Obando y Bravo. What, at least for now, is being called a “reconciliation” between the FSLN leadership and the Catholic Church hierarchy was symbolically sealed by a Mass on the morning of Sunday July 19 in the Managua Cathedral, presided over by Cardinal Obando and concelebrated by dozens of priests. Even the papal nuncio attended, causing speculation about what his presence might symbolize. Ortega, his family and many other FSLN leaders were present, as was the entire press corps, including foreign reporters who had come to see how the country was faring a quarter of a century after initiating its ill-fated revolution. The bible reading fell to Ortega, just as it had to Arnoldo Alemán days before he won the 1996 presidential elections (political anointment by the Church is no small thing in Nicaragua).
A lesser surprise—although major for Ortega, one might assume—was that Obando skipped over a part of the script publicly announced by Ortega following their meeting: he failed to pray for all the heroes and martyrs of the recent wars. Ortega had paid a high price for that request, rewriting history by claiming publicly that during his 1983 visit to Nicaragua Pope John Paul II had prayed for the victims of a contra ambush. Did he really think the hundreds of thousands of people present at the open air Mass that scandalous and painful day have forgotten what really happened? As then, there was no prayer for any war dead in Obando’s July 19 Mass, either by name or generically. The over a hundred thousand people who died in the insurrection that toppled Somoza and the 10-year US war of aggression that followed were absent not only from the tone of the celebration but also from the prayer of the faithful and even the memento to the deceased, which the nuncio himself read. There was only a formal allusion at the start of Cardinal Obando’s much-anticipated homily when he proposed “a kind of purification of the memory, forgetting everything that happened, but without denying that it occurred,” advocating that there “never be irreconcilable fights but rather patriotic solutions.”
Because of the morning’s event, the celebration in the plaza was set for 3 pm, by which hour it was packed with over a hundred thousand banner-waving Sandinistas, some of whom had been standing there in the hot sun since noon and were easy prey for the venders who moved through the crowd hawking beer all afternoon. It lasted nearly five hours thanks largely to Ortega’s speech, which dragged on and on as dusk descended into dark, indifferent to those in the plaza who left in droves to catch hired buses back to distant towns or walk home through dangerous Managua neighborhoods on a public holiday with very limited public transport.
The spectacle was conceived more for television—the FSLN paid several national TV channels to broadcast it live—than for the crowd in the plaza. The stage bore the unmistakable esthetic touch of Ortega’s wife, the poet, artist and increasingly mystic Rosario Murillo, who filled it with potted flowers and the gigantic letters FSLN painted in checkered rainbow colors. It even had a long ramp so her husband could parade out into the crowd. Armed with strings of poetic adjectives, she also emceed the event, which featured folk dancing, the hoisting of an enormous 25th anniversary flag in the same designer-rainbow colors to honor the largely rightwing parties and individuals that have stuck out their “convergence” with the FSLN since the 2001 elections, and a curious array of Sandinistas who received special anniversary pins. None of the invited presidential guests—Brazil’s Lula, Panama’s Martín Torrijos, Venezuela’s Chávez, Cuba’s Fidel—attended.
A pardon only as deep as the political momentDaniel Ortega began his nearly two-hour speech with the FSLN’s creation in the sixties, then meandered through a positivist interpretation of what the Sandinista government did in the eighties and a superficial condemnation of everything that has happened since it left office. Demonstrating that his desire for reconciliation only extends to asking the Catholic hierarchy to pardon what were in fact reciprocally destructive relations, he made no reconciliatory gestures to the many Sandi-nistas, including historic leaders, who left the FSLN for ethical or political reasons, or were expelled and disparaged for questioning the conduct of the iron circle now running the party
Ortega spoke in a conversational, almost pensive tone, as if trying to recapture his own sense of historic achievement after the morning’s less than victorious outcome—or perhaps trying simply to sound like a gentle reconciliator. Such psychological speculation aside, the speech was ill-geared to any potential voters in this municipal election year who had turned on their televisions hoping to hear concrete proposals on how to escape the labyrinth. The only electoral reference came at the very end, when most of the plaza crowd had left and folks at home were gathered around the dinner table oblivious to their TV sets, and then just to allude to what he would do if elected President in 2006: democratize power by implanting a parliamentary system nourished by popular assemblies.
There was no doubt among political analysts that the “pardon” Ortega and his group sought from the Catholic hierarchy was electorally motivated, but there was less clarity—albeit a lot of speculation—about why it was granted. It did not go unobserved that the move coincided with a period of notable tension between the hierarchy and the Bolaños team. Furthermore, at a time when any immediate maneuvers favoring Alemán’s definitive release seem increasingly doomed, Liberal leaders still speak hopefully of intercession by the Cardinal, particularly after the auxiliary bishop of Managua, Jorge Solórzano, mentioned the idea of the Catholic Church mediating on Alemán’s behalf. As Nicaraguans are well aware, Alemán’s fate lies largely in Ortega’s hands, through his control of the judges on the case.
While from a civic perspective, Ortega’s electoral-religious maneuver undermines the ideal of a lay state and reinforces a traditional political culture that impedes the forging of citizenship, from a Christian point of view, it borders on sacrilege. Even from a political angle, it is hard to think who will be won over by Ortega’s new alliance with the Catholic hierarchy. It is not likely to soften the hostility of the US government or Nicaragua’s own anti-Sandinista sectors, and its only effect on the opposition to Ortega’s leadership within the party is surely negative. Those ethically clear Sandinistas who already left the party, meanwhile, have every reason to see the move as an implicit rejection of the liberation theology that motivated so many of them in the seventies and eighties and was so viscerally opposed by the hierarchy. And finally, this maneuver has undoubtedly wounded the sentiments of the healthy and growing Protestant population, especially the fundamentalist evangelicals whom Ortega welcomed in the eighties as a counterweight to the power of the Catholic hierarchy. So who’s left?
When crimes are redefined as sins With so many Nicaraguans preferring to bury their history—and not just that of the eighties—as a survival mechanism, Ortega may be able to sell his “religious strategy” as something positive and convincing. If political analysts sipped it with a strong dose of skepticism, many believers swallowed it whole: “God always forgives and it’s nice to see someone who’s repentant”; “We should always stay on God’s good side so the country can go forward”; “We have to do away with rancor; that’s what our Lord wants.” Ortega’s calculation is that these perceptions will translate into favorable sermons in the parish pulpits and from there into votes in the municipal elections, which in turn will pave the way to an electoral victory in the next presidential elections, still two years away.
The real perversity of this strategy to pardon and forgive in God’s name—similar to those of politicians and religious figures who want to erase Alemán’s grave crimes of corruption or define heinous sexual crimes as simple “sins of lust”—is the transmutation of crimes into sins that can then be pardoned by God through those supposedly representing Him. The archaic idea of God harbored by the majority of Nicaraguans allows this alchemy to be peddled as something spiritual when all that it does is foster impunity and increase the social tolerance of criminals.
The FSLN’s two-prong electoral strategy is not well oiledBe that as it may, Cardinal Obando’s power is respected and revered, which is why Ortega is exultant to have some of it shine down on him. The FSLN’s two-prong strategy—to keep the Liberals divided over Alemán’s final destiny and to intensify its relationship with the Catholic Church, manipulating the Christian symbols of pardon, love, conversion and reconciliation—is now in place. The “power of love” will disguise the love of power. The FSLN is further aided by the PLC’s financial crisis, which its leaders openly acknowledge, recognizing that being out of government and having the shadow of the anti-corruption struggle hanging over its candidates has undermined its credibility, not to mention its resources and campaign donors.
The polls currently favor the FSLN in the November 7 municipal elections, but the race has yet to be run. It’s own finances are not exactly buoyant either, and both it and the PLC now have to deal with a third force. Created by the presidential offices, the new Alliance for the Republic (APRE) enjoys the resources of incumbency, and is also backed by some of the country’s most affluent capitalists. As municipal elections are not a zero-sum game, a split anti-Sandinista vote doesn’t help the FSLN as much as it would in presidential elections. The key question for November’s municipal elections is thus whether the results will reflect the continuing political PLC-FSLN polarization or allow APRE a respectable showing, which would have serious implications for presidential election strategies. So far, both Ortega and Alemán are pooh-poohing the capacity of the nascent red-green-blue (Liberal-Conservative-independent nationalist) alternative. Alemán, in his inimitable fashion, called it the “child of senile imaginations,” obviously an unflattering reference to the elderly but hardly senile Bolaños. Ortega doesn’t even grace it with a mention.
The FSLN’s strength in the polls allows Ortega to keep both Bolaños and Alemán followers dangling. Will he renew his tactical alliance with Bolaños or will he negotiate with Alemán, with whom he shares the strategic objective of preventing another Bolaños-style presidency with a candidate like Eduardo Montealegre? Speculation is rife among the political class, but the answer to such questions will have to await the election results in November.
Whatever relative advantages his party has in those elections, Daniel Ortega has his own reasons to worry. Voters do not favor him for President. In fact, despite his own Sandinista credentials, current Managua Mayor Herty Lewites is polling ahead of all other pre-candidates, Montealegre included, earning him the ill will of both Ortega and Murillo. Lewites, no political slouch, attended the July 19 Mass with his wife and during the traditional post-service embrace-thy-neighbor was first in line to hug Ortega and Murillo before the TV cameras, showing he has no hard feelings about the terrible things they have been saying about him recently. He also surely won points with the traditional faithful when he and his wife, who were married by the church the previous day, took communion while unmarried Ortega and Murillo could not.
Campaign financing controls:Both the FSLN and the PLC frequently use accusations of electoral crimes as a political weapon against each other and against the Bolaños crowd. None of them, however, evinces any desire to beef up controls over sources of financing for their parties’ electoral campaigns, despite the direct relationship to the electoral crimes they so rail about. Keeping this issue, one of the weakest areas of the electoral law resulting from the FSLN-PLC pact, out of the limelight is obviously strategic to the battle for power.
An issue no one wants to touch
Meanwhile, 18 parties and alliances registered candidates for mayor, deputy mayor and council members in the country’s 152 municipalities. Another 17 parties that failed to do so by the deadline lost not only the chance to run but also their legal status, gained—or reinstated—some months ago when the FSLN/PLC-run Supreme Electoral Council (CSE) inexplicably trumpeted pluralist democracy, opening back up the two-party system imposed by that same pact just before the 2000 municipal elections.
While the campaign officially kicks off on September 23, it has of course already begun, albeit in a climate of utter voter apathy. Greater austerity is expected than in past elections, not only in the party campaigns, but also in the CSE’s own election budget. Its excessive spending in recent elections gave Nicaragua the dubious distinction of having the highest per-voter election cost in all of Latin America and one of the highest in the world.
A new prosecutor named:There is a slim possibility that we are about to witness a new thrust in the anti-corruption struggle. On July 28, President Bolaños surprised everyone by naming criminal lawyer Alberto Novoa as the new Prosecuting Attorney General. The surprise was not because he doesn’t merit the post, but because two years ago Bolaños just as suddenly removed him as Special Prosecutor in two cases against Alemán and Byron Jerez (the Channel 6 case and the “SUV scam”). The dismissal came precisely when Novoa started talking about the possible involvement of Catholic officials and their allies in the massive tax-free import of luxury vehicles through COPROSA, an institution of the Managua archdiocese.
Will he be able to prosecute?
The professionalism and honesty that everyone recognized in Novoa’s short-lived debut as a high-profile justice official will be put to the test in his new post. All indications are that he is taking office without a political godfather and with a strong desire to work hard and make a difference. Bolaños needs Novoa’s help in once more raising the anti-corruption banner that gave him such international prestige, but has taken a real beating nationally after repeated evidence of untouchable dossiers signaled the government’s surrender to impunity. He may also need Novoa because reopening shelved or closed cases could pressure pro-Alemán Liberal legislators to vote for the huge backlog of bills essential to Bolaños’ project that have been stuck in the Assembly for months.
The FSLN’s novel art of campaign financing?The FSLN’s control within the judicial branch—an extremely important advantage for the party given the fact that our democracy is dominated by a theatrical rule of law—could give the Sandinistas’ two-prong strategy a special lube job in coming months. One rapidly spreading opinion is that the reopening of selected corruption cases by Sandinista judges may be aimed at renegotiating them with an eye to campaign fundraising. If the “resource factor” seems an excessively cynical hypothesis, the only other explanation for the sudden definitive closure of some cases for “exceeding the statute of limitations,” or the granting of release on bail, exceptional privileges or “at home” penitentiary sentences to numerous protagonists of the country’s most important corruption cases is equally cynical: to remove them from Bolaños’ arsenal.
A few days before the July 19 celebrations, Alemán and Ortega finally came to an agreement for filling the 16 vacant Supreme and Appellate Court seats. As expected, they split them down the middle. Also as anticipated, Judge Juana Méndez, who has handled the Alemán case in such a judicially suspect manner, is now an honorable judge in Managua’s Appeals Court. Judge David Rojas, also linked to the FSLN-controlled structures, replaced her in Managua’s First District Criminal Court.
Among their last acts before leaving their old posts, several of the promoted Sandinista judges demonstrated the FSLN’s power to politically—and economically—shut or string out sensitive cases. Méndez definitively stayed the case of Jorge Solís, director of the state telephone company ENITEL during the Alemán government, who was accused of involvement in the huge embezzlement known the “Guaca” (stash). Solís, a fugitive of justice, immediately returned to the country, reiterating his loyalty to Alemán. She did the same in one of the various cases still open against former head of the income tax bureau Byron Jerez, thus releasing him even from house arrest at his Managua residence and his beach mansion, where she had previously authorized him to wait out the trial due to “gastric problems.”
Another promoted Sandinista judge stayed the case against pro-Alemán legislator Eduardo Mena, implicated in a scandalous corruption case involving the Rural Development Institute’s development poles. In contrast, yet another judge sentenced Sandinista comandante Henry Ruiz and eight other board members of the Augusto César Sandino Foundation (FACS) to a year in prison for allegedly falsifying documents following their denunciation months ago of serious embezzlement and other irregularities practiced by FACS director Edwin Zablah, an Ortega loyalist.
If this keeps on, Novoa’s possible belligerence in any new anti-corruption push could have unforeseen consequences in other politically important cases on the docket of judges who obey Ortega’s desires. On assuming his new post, Novoa declared that he is clear about his limits because the Judicial Branch is not independent and cannot easily shake free of party interests. The most unfortunate part of that reality is what those interests are.
Banks and taxesThis crude exhibition of the FSLN’s judicial power was expressed anew on July 20, in a sentence by the Supreme Court’s Civil Bench that shocked any who still have the stomach to be informed and the capacity to be moved.
The Sandinista-stacked majority on the bench ordered the state to return all assets and liabilities of the Banco Europeo de Centroamérica (BECA) to Álvaro Robelo, currently a member of the FSLN-headed Convergence. This shady political-financial figure founded the BECA after returning to Nicaragua from Italy in 1994, but the bank was intervened and liquidated for bad management, insolvency and presumed fraud only two years later, at the end of Chamorro’s term, just as Robelo’s own presidential candidacy appeared to be gathering steam. Because not even the Superintendence of Banks can appeal what it calls the Supreme Court’s “incongruent” decision, it took out a full-page newspaper ad to detail why the bank had been intervened and plead for a “resolution in accordance with the law.”
When the BECA was shut down, BANCENTRO bought its deposits for $25 million and the state absorbed its debts. The BECA case reminded Nicaraguans of the murky history of bankruptcy due to fraud of five of the country’s other eight banks that have gone under since the banking system was privatized by the Chamorro government. The issuance of exceedingly high-interest bonds to finance the bailout of these bankruptcies is a big reason why the current government is saddled with a $1.5 billion domestic debt that is bleeding the country dry but fattening the remaining bankers, who knew a good deal when they saw it.
Following the favorable sentence, Robelo claimed all his money, which he estimates at US$20-30 million, denouncing the Chamorro government officials who intervened his bank, some of whom are now in the Bolaños administration, as “bullies and glue-sniffers.” A clearly disconcerted President Bolaños declared that he would not accept the decision handed down by the Court, which he called an “assault on the financial system,” then warned that the only way to pay Robelo would be by hitting the population with more taxes.
Will the two parties to this sentence—Robelo and the state—negotiate a solution, or will it be added to the list of cases arranged quietly between the power groups fighting over the country’s scarce resources after a huge scandal in the press? Or is it simply another of those tracer bullets that periodically shoot across the political night sky when one group wants to warn the others of the arsenal it has at its disposal then flicker out into nothingness?
The Civil Coordinator, which has already been making a ruckus about the nearly $63 million in projected tax collection not included in the 2004 national budget, presumably so it can be quietly used to make payments on the bond debt to the bankers, demanded that the government negotiate this new case transparently. It insisted that the costs not translate into increased taxes on the population, reminding public opinion how scandalous it was that three consecutive governments had exonerated these same banks from paying taxes and that the majority of the country’s big contributors continue evading income tax by alleging bankruptcy. Despite all this, the Bolaños government still boasts to the international community of its total transparency, and is still being applauded for it.
Any swindler’s dreamIf the BECA and Álvaro Robelo had been lying forgotten around some corner of the national labyrinth and their resurrection caused relatively little commotion, the case that followed was thunderous. On July 21, Treasury Minister Eduardo Montiel officially announced that the new pension system is being formally suspended pending further analysis. Under a reformed social security law pushed through in 2000, the part of the existing system covering contributors under 43 years of age was to be privatized, while older workers would remain the state’s responsibility. The scheme had effectively been suspended for some time, even though three pension fund administrators had already begun operating in accord with the new law.
One slightly positive note for an executive branch renowned for its often arrogant, unfeeling officials is that Montiel bravely and humbly acknowledged a grave error: the system established in the law is not viable in Nicaragua, whose state-run social security system is technically bankrupt. Had it been implemented as designed, the split system would have raised the fiscal deficit to an unmanageable level because the state would be left with a preponderance of people approaching retirement yet bereft of the contributions from younger workers. Thus it came to pass that in a matter of hours the entire legal, institutional and propagandistic structure promoted for years by the international financing agencies, with their highly paid advisers and consultants, and passively accepted by both the Alemán and Bolaños governments despite the warnings and criticisms of independent experts, lay collapsed on the floor.
One of the most recent defenders of this fiasco, former Treasury Minister and presidential hopeful Eduardo Montealegre, had nothing to say on the matter. What will happen now to the Superintendence of Pensions, that incredibly costly institution created to implement the scrapped law, that monument to unconcealable embarrassment, to the prevailing mixture of shortsighted thinking and lack of reflection, that failure waiting to happen? How do we get out of this legal and social labyrinth? How do we undo this injustice? Have any lessons been learned, at least? We can only hope so.
Although reminded on a daily basis of just how deep these black holes in the national economy run, it’s impossible for the majority of the population in a country such as Nicaragua to make any organized demands about them. They are hampered by extremely limited education, confusing information and ongoing manipulation by their political leaders, and have enough problems just finding enough to eat every day. A confession in an unusually realistic report by one national organization reads: “As a country and a population, we are any swindler’s dream.”
There are threads of change to followNational politics and the national economy—in short, the nation’s future—remain trapped in a labyrinth. Months go by with no fundamental changes, although every day brings new, more intricate and convoluted twists and turns. Labyrinths are always difficult to run, as we learn in myths and in our dreams that reflect those myths. They are full of traps and confusing dead ends that create a desperate fear and a genuine risk of never finding the exit. We will only find the way out of our own labyrinth here in Nicaragua with long-term planning and visionary thinking. There’s no easy or quick fix. Recognizing this, however, produces fear, the desire to run even faster in search of a trick door that will spin us through to the outside. Or else it produces apathy, exhaustion and fatalism.
There are perhaps some threads we could follow that might at least help us imagine where to find some future solutions and help us achieve patience through our awareness of them. They are long educational processes that fortify the memory and determination to learn, that develop people’s knowledge, thought, autonomy and creativity, all of which we will need to find solutions.
Reality educates. It forces change and speeds up the search in the labyrinth. One reality is that Nicaragua is no longer the country it was until very recently. That country of oligarchic agroexporters with easily identifiable surnames and families linked to coffee, cotton, sugar or cattle is history. The fortunes being made today have other focal points of reproduction: finance, representation of American franchises, the textile maquilas—all of which have begun to come but will presumably flood in with the Central American Free Trade Agreement. And they in turn are generating a different ideology, other styles. The generational rollover is already underway, and the younger generations will upend much of the traditional political culture. Will the changes be for better or for worse? Or perhaps some of each? It is a thread that bears watching.
Another reality that contains seeds of change is the massive emigration of Nicaraguans. This generates change for both those who go and those who stay behind and periodically receive money and commodities from the emigrant’s new home. The remittances, the investments made back home in Nicaragua by its emigrants in other countries and their exposure to another world and other political and organizational cultures are all brewing changes in the political culture in which we are trapped today.
Yet another seed of change is in the hands of women from the countryside and the city who step by step are discovering clues about how to escape the labyrinth of their own consciousness, forged by the patriarchal system. And they are indeed escaping, not without suffering pain and the consequences of the opposition this produces in many men who feel a loss of identity, of control, who don’t know how to treat more autonomous and mature women other than responding with cruelty and violence, beating, raping and murdering. Everyday we read newspaper reports about such tragedies, which are explained by gender power games, the economic crisis and cultural changes. But we also learn of men who are acquiring new ways of understanding the world and women’s possible nontraditional roles in it, men who are discovering that their own sense of empowerment need not rely on the disem-powerment of the women in their lives.
It will take a long time and a lot of effort for both men and women in such a machista society to throw off those old ways. It implies discovery, exploration, contrasts, contradictions, broken silences, unequal contracts, new words, confronted violence; but much of this is already in motion in the world of gender. To find a way out of its labyrinths, Nicaragua has the seed of a healthy and fruitful revolution in the new consciousness growing in half of its population.
There will be ways out. We like to believe that it’s only a question of perseverance, time and the recovery of people’s own power.