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  Number 285 | Abril 2005
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Nicaragua

Vortexes in All Three Vertexes Of the Triangle

It was an agitated month of whirlwinds in Nicaragua’s power triangle. The one at the PLC vertex spun around the issue of when Alemán would be released. At the FSLN’s, it had to do with where and how far Herty Lewites’ challenge would go. And at the ecclesiastical one, the death of Pope John Paul II coincided with Cardinal Obando’s departure as archbishop of Managua.

Nitlápan-Envío team

Some months ago, historian, Conservative politician and former foreign minister Emilio Álvarez Montalván came up with a useful metaphor when he wrote that a “Bermuda Triangle” was dominating Nicaraguan’s national scene, sucking everything down into its three-pointed depths. He positioned three caudillos at the vertexes of that triangle: former President Arnoldo Alemán on the Liberal angle, former President Daniel Ortega on the Sandinista one and Cardinal Miguel Obando y Bravo on the Church one. No one challenged his metaphor; implicitly or explicitly, everybody knew he was right.

We start with this because, as the mail carrier said to Pablo Neruda in that wonderful movie “Il Postino,” metaphors don’t belong to those who conceive them but to those who need them, which gives us the moral authority to study the same triangle and the vortexes that have occurred at its three vertexes this month The dictionary defines a vortex as a swirl of air or water around a given point; another apt metaphor, this time to describe the tumult and disorder whirling around all three points.

Alemán’s release:
To be or not to be?

The Pact of El Chile, named for the hacienda where Alemán is currently serving his 20-year sentence for money laundering, was a voluminous package of new agreements hammered out between Ortega and Alemán that involved new institutions, constitutional reforms and new and reformed laws. It also involved the appointment of Supreme Court justices, comptrollers and superintendents of oversight bodies, all loyal to these two caudillos. Starting last November, the negotiation and implementation of these agreements caused national “crises,” legal controversies, calls to the OAS, conflicts between the branches of government, menacing speeches, presidential threats to impose a state of emergency, resolutions by the Central American Court, counter-resolutions by Nicaragua’s Supreme Court, a national dialogue that stagnates then moves, moves then stagnates… Within all of this maneuvering, which is still far from over, it was always understood that Arnoldo Alemán would give a lot, even handing over “all of Nicaragua if necessary” to the Ortega-dominated FSLN in exchange for his freedom.

What form would this freedom take? Would it be a legislatively decreed amnesty or a judicial reversal of his sentence? And when would it all take place? Virtually everyone has been asking such questions during the past few weeks. There are now even bets on how and pools on when. As Holy Week is always a time of letting go in Nicaragua, when disinformation and lack of reflection multiply, it was the logical date most people put their money on: Alemán would walk out of his hacienda-prison a free man on March 18, the Friday before the week-long vacation—spent more at the beach than in the churches. As the days ticked by, doubts set in: did we all read it into Ortega’s words, or was that really his pledge? And if it was, would he actually make good on it?

An affront

Those whose money was riding on March 18 were right about the date but wrong about the prisoner. To the surprise and affront of all, whether in favor of or against Alemán’s release, the man who went free that day was Byron Jerez, his partner in crime, his equally obese clone in government, his bosom buddy in fraud and larceny, director of the government tax division under Alemán and former Constitutionalist Liberal Party treasurer.

At the same hour, a Sandinista judge absolved Jerez and 22 other people accused of involvement in the fraudulent collapse of BANIC, the last remaining state bank under Alemán’s reign, while a Sandinista-dominated appeals court annulled Jerez’s eight-year sentence for the famous “check scam,” the first corruption case La Prensa had uncovered—with abundant evidence—in 2001. Of the eight counts against Jerez, only the two smallest cases remain open and he should have little difficulty extricating himself from them.

An analysis by the Public Prose-cutor’s Office in Panama—involved because Jerez and Alemán are suspected of laundering millions of dollars through Panamanian banks—stressed the “ingenious, deceitful and continual appropriation of state funds” to which Jerez dedicated himself. When the Liberal leaders turned their back on Jerez, who was the first major figure from the Alemán government to fall into disgrace, he employed that same ingenuity, deceit and tenacity to begin forging relations with the FSLN leaders because he understood that they control the justice system. This relationship has allowed him to buy his innocence case by case, surely at prices set by a seller’s market.

A pardon or
wiped from the books?

The fact that Alemán was not released created more turbulence among his Liberal loyalists, leaving them still grappling with the same two options. The possibility of being freed by a court decision remains in Ortega’s hands. Alemán’s 20-year sentence, now in the appeals court, would be revoked or modified, which would be the ideal result for him. The official record would show that he never laundered public money and that everything that has happened to him was a political maneuver. The FSLN allegedly promised him this option when the two parties initiated their current round of negotiations. According to Christian Way leader and legislator and Alemán ally Guillermo Osorno, Ortega promised to “return him his dignity and his honor.”

The other possibility, receiving amnesty, is in the National Assembly’s hands. This option, too, has its advantages, although it would be a little short on “dignity,” in that his crimes would be pardoned and soon forgotten but his record not expunged. According to the text of the March 30 amnesty bill, the third the PLC has submitted, all public officials accused of embezzlement, fraud, graft and laundering of public funds would be pardoned. Thus, with one sweep of the pen, all officials from Alemán’s government who are now fugitives of justice would be free to come home. This amnesty decree would also wipe off the books all accusations of electoral crimes hanging over the head of various Liberal leaders. The downside for Alemán’s Bolaños-hating supporters is that this same clause would include the current President and a number of his ministers who are also facing charges of electoral crimes.

In an M&R poll done in mid-March, 67.2% of those surveyed said that Alemán should stay locked up, while 14.9% favored an amnesty and 11.5% preferred his being declared innocent by the courts. As this issue goes to press, the debate is still raging over which of these last two options, or some variation of them, will prevail. Once all these high-ticket absolutions have been paid for and implemented, nothing will remain of President Bolaños’ anti-corruption struggle, an emblem he still raises in all his travels outside Nicaragua.

Divisions in the Liberal vertex…

Why didn’t Daniel Ortega honor his part of the bargain on the set day? He evidently wants to try to open even more doors with this once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. So far, it has allowed him to play the PLC caudillo like a yo-yo on a string, giving and withdrawing privileges according to his passing interests. Ortega is a card-carrying opportunist. As long as Alemán remains behind bars, or at least behind the gate of his hacienda, Ortega can squeeze more quotas of power, more institutional spaces, and surely more resources out of the PLC leadership. And by dangling Alemán permanently on the brink of freedom, Ortega feeds the anxiety that keeps Liberals both politically and emotionally divided and their attention constantly focused on El Chile. With each new day that their maximum leader is not there to clamp down on their internal disputes, more crop up.

Ortega’s dream of returning to government in 2006 is built on the division of the “Right,” defined as the entire anti-Sandinista vote, which is much broader than just the Liberal vote. Keeping Alemán on the sidelines has been the most effective way to maintain that division.

…and now in the Sandinista one

But the divisionist wind that has been whipping the Alemán vertex for over two years is now battering the Ortega one as well. It is even possible that Ortega didn’t make good on his commitment to Alemán because he was busy trying to snuff out the challenge to his iron grip on the FSLN structures launched by Herty Lewites.

According to a nationwide CID-Gallup poll conducted at the end of February, 59% of those identifying themselves as Sandinistas preferred Herty Lewites over Daniel Ortega as the party’s presidential candidate. This is a major shift in the four months since October 2004, when Ortega led with 47% party support to Lewites’ 38%. Another poll held in mid-March, this time by M&R, showed that if the presidential elections had been held at the time of the survey, Lewites would have won with 46.5% of the votes, doubling his nearest rival Eduardo Monte-alegre (22.7%). Like Lewites in the FSLN, Montealegre is challenging the power circles of his own party, the PLC, by seeking to be its presidential candidate. Only 10% of those polled said they would vote for Daniel Ortega. Even 72.4% of the pro-FSLN population said they did not support Ortega’s presidential candidacy. M&R director Raúl Obregón interpreted Lewites’ significant ascent as follows: “Whoever presents a firm challenge to Ortega will receive a majority backing, as we’ve seen in past elections.” Daniel Ortega’s own comment on the polls was glib: “I’m delighted. In the past, the polls had me in first place and I lost. Now I’m the underdog, which is a sign that I’m going to win.”

The Lewites whirlwind

What began as a tiny crack within the FSLN late last year, when Lewites first announced his interest in being Ortega’s running mate for next year’s presidential elections, has grown into a major fissure. After Lewites responded to Ortega’s cold shoulder by announcing that he would run for the presidential slot itself in party primaries, Ortega, his wife Rosario Murillo and the rest of his most loyal supporters in the party structure have done everything short of bump Lewites off to block him from running, and Lewites isn’t even ruling out an assassination attempt.

In late February and early March, Ortega mobilized his minions within the judicial and electoral branches to prevent Lewites from using any FSLN symbols or holding a political event on the day for which he had already received police permission. Ortega also called an extraordinary congress to have himself declared the party’s presidential candidate, thus eliminating the FSLN primary election and along with it Lewites’ opportunity to test his support within the party. The congress even expelled from the party both Lewites and his campaign manager Victor Hugo Tinoco, once groomed as a post-Ortega presidential hopeful. And if all that weren’t enough, Ortega’s lieutenants put out a call to certain youth gangs and transport cooperatives to confront a demonstration organized by Lewites and his supporters in front of a party leadership meeting where all of this was being planned. With a ratio of several thousand Ortega mobsters to several hundred Lewites supporters, the latter retreated under a shower of stones.

It was the most public exhibition of Ortega’s legendary but well-hidden intolerance, but if it intimidated some, Lewites was not among them. He challenged this juggernaut by holding a political rally in Masaya on Sunday, March 13, that demonstrated how much Ortega’s strong-arm techniques have boomeranged.

The 8-10,000 people who showed up—most but not all of them disaffected Sandinistas—were consciously defying the FSLN’s campaign to disqualify Lewites and those accompanying him and intimidate anyone interested in his project. They were also defying the fears produced by rumors of violent altercations. Above all, they were defying the untouchable Ortega myth. By attending, they shed years spent without publicly expressing their criticisms, ideas or disagreements about how things are, thus producing a new manifestation of support for Lewites’ presidential aspirations within the FSLN and creating a rallying point for all the disaffected Sandi-nistas who have long since left the party.

Unprecedented support
for a Sandinista alternative

The mood in Masaya was festive, happy and easy-going, but not fervent. The majority of the faces registered expectation, determination and even that healthy skepticism or mistrust that in this case grows out of the accumulation of unexpressed frustrations within the Sandinista family that stretch way back. The look on the faces of many Sandinistas there seemed to be saying, “Well, let’s see if this one will turn out a little better.”

It is still not clear whether what is unfolding was Lewites’ intention or he is being carried along by events. Nor is it clear from the rough sketch we’ve seen so far that his project has a strong ideological underpinning, as it appears to be linked more to the anti-Ortega Sandinista crowd than to other independent non-Sandinista sectors. Be that as it may, his political rallies in Jinotepe on January 30 and Masaya on March 13 deserve attention.

They are the first two occasions in which a group of Sandinistas openly challenging the “lines” established by the authoritarian leadership has attracted thousands of people sporting Sandino’s red and black colors. This never happened during the past 15 years in which the FSLN was consolidating its privatization process, transforming itself into what it is today: a personally managed private enterprise with organized mafias. The Sandinista Renovation Movement didn’t pull nearly as many people when in 1995 it used ideas similar to those of Lewites’ project to challenge not Sandinista unity but the uniformity imposed within the FSLN. This reaction caught the FSLN inner leadership circle off guard, causing an unanticipated and hopefully positive maelstrom at the pro-Ortega poll.

The cardinal retires
as archbishop

There was also turbulence this month at the third point of the triangle, normally the most undisturbed one. Cardinal Miguel Obando y Bravo’s replacement as archbishop of Managua has been expected since 2001, when he turned 75 and tendered his resignation to the Vatican as required by canon law, but it has only now been accepted.

The Vatican’s reticence for so many years sparked innumerable interpretations, as did its acceptance precisely at this time. Some assumed that the cardinal was not replaced earlier because there were still great expectations of his considerable political influence in a country so volatile that even experienced Vatican diplomats find it hard to understand from outside.

Right up until the announcement of his replacement, some believed the cardinal was being forced out of the archdiocese due to intense lobbying by Bolaños’ team because the President, who somewhat surprisingly still has significant international prestige, would like to weaken at least one of the other points of the power triangle. Some believed that the final straw in this alleged lobbying effort—which Bolaños emphatically denies—was the public reconciliation between Obando and Daniel Ortega, expressed in such an ostentatious and picturesque way in the Mass held in the Managua Cathedral on July 19, 2004.

The news that the cardinal would finally leave his powerful archdioce-san post first arrived in the form of a rumor shortly before Holy Week, right when the pro-Alemán vertex was centered on Alemán’s imminent liberty and Lewites was monopolizing attention in the pro-Ortega vertex. All points wobbled at the same time.

A very last-minute announcement

The rumor was that 56-year-old Leopoldo Brenes, bishop of Matagalpa, would replace Cardinal Obando as archbishop of Managua, but it wasn’t officially confirmed. As is his wont, the cardinal referred to the “pontifical secret” that prevented him from speaking. It is not the first time the cardinal has taken refuge behind the “secret of confession” at controversial moments. After all, mysteries and secrets augment power.

During the formal Chrismal Mass of Holy Thursday, Obando emotionally bid adieu to the congregation, but confirmed nothing. More importantly, the papal nuncio, in charge of making the substitution official, also remained silent on the matter, thus encouraging the hope that the cardinal could celebrate his 36th anniversary as head of the Managua archdiocese on April 4.

One those coincidences that trigger both incredulity and suspicion put a halt to the rumors and secrets and forced the cancellation of the much debated and eagerly awaited plans for Obando’s final celebration. Pope John Paul II was on his deathbed in Rome, and as his passing would invalidate the decision about Obando’s withdrawal unless it was quickly made official, the Nunciature woke Obando up at 3:45 am on April 2 to announce it. It was almost midday in Rome, barely two or three hours before the pope’s death was announced to the world. One could only wonder what other last-minute threads were being tied elsewhere.

Succeeded but
not overshadowed

The change in the archbishopric is not as great a disruption as it might seem. Obando will give up his jurisdiction in the parishes and other ecclesial arenas of the archdiocese—which includes not only Managua, but also the departments of Carazo and Masaya—where 60% of the national population and thus the majority of the country’s Catholics live. But that does not mean he will lose his symbolic power or leave the political stage on which he has made himself indispensable for so many years.

He will still bear the honorific lifetime title of cardinal, will still be “His Eminence” to all journalists and, above all, will still be sought out by politicians—as backers of both Alemán and Ortega are already doing—as witness, mediator, interceder, representative and referent for all occasions. Unless, as has repeatedly been insinuated in recent years, he is selected to occupy a post in some Vatican ministry.

One of his last significant declarations before leaving his post as archbishop was this: “We would not question an amnesty for former President Alemán. If the fathers of our country judge that this is suitable to bring tranquility, harmony and peace to Nicaragua, I would not oppose it for my part.” He offered this statement on his arrival from Rome, where the Vatican had told him that his resignation had been accepted.

Monsignor Brenes, who has declared himself Cardinal Obando’s “son” and has been his auxiliary bishop, doesn’t seem so prone to become—or be turned into—the religious caudillo that Cardinal Obando quite consciously chose to be all these years, a desire nourished by society, journalists, their media and so many other public opinion generators. Obando has also been able to float his “spiritual” leadership on a sea of religious ignorance and Christian inconsistency.

In general, nuns, priests and pastoral agents all over the country were pleased by the change. Much of the population expects more pastoral attitudes from Monsignor Brenes and a ministry more committed to the vast Nicaragua population living in poverty than to the political personalities linked to the power triangle’s other two vertexes, who are responsible for so much corruption and notoriously evoke God’s name to justify their unethical political maneuvers.

Monsignor Brenes faces a major challenge ahead if he wants to be independent of the country’s political and economic powers: how to finance ecclesiastical and ecclesial activities, pastoral services, social works and the maintenance of the archdiocese’s patrimony without selling out to these powers, turning the church’s symbolic power into just more merchandise. Many of Cardinal Obando’s commitments, attitudes and activities, not to mention his close political relations with the PLC and more recently with the FSLN, are explained by economic motives: aid, exonerations, perks, privileges, opportunities, guarantees… and also impunity.

The backdrop

While the three points of the power triangle have been whipped about by their respective whirlwinds, the backdrop to all this is a government that is only accentuating its own ineptitude and inability to respond to the problems. A nationwide CID-Gallup poll conducted at the end of February showed that the majority of Nicaraguans no longer expect anything of the Bolaños government. While his popularity has been slipping consistently since the end of 2002, his first year in office, public opinion about his performance dropped to a record low last month. Only 26% viewed Bolaños’s administration as good or very good, while 12% saw it as bad and 33% as very bad.

There is calm in his space—which can’t exactly be called a power point, first because there’s ever less power and second because there’s no vitality. This government’s only growth product is weakness, which added to its ineptitude serves to strengthen those controlling the PLC and FSLN points of the triangle. It’s a dangerous situation, because we’re still over a year and a half away from the general elections that might begin to change some things.

Two immediate tasks:
Truth and example

Many important things need to be changed in Nicaragua, but none of them will change simply with the election of a new government; the needs are too profound. But if real progress is to be made over the long haul in democratizing the country, the FSLN and other parties, and the church, then certain initial steps must be taken. Those who want to set off down this path must first assume two tasks that cannot be postponed or sidestepped: tell the truth and set a good example.

Many truths are still being evaded in today’s Nicaragua. And so many bad examples have accumulated in recent years, piling one on top of the other in all three points of the power triangle, among other places, that a crust of insensitivity and resignation has formed over most of our society.

The movement gathering behind Herty Lewites thus urgently needs to open a genuine debate within the Sandinista vertex about the lack of ethics at the root of the FSLN’s catastrophe. There is urgent need for a program based on more ethical political conduct, with a spirit of service, with truth and with leaders who set an example to the rest of society and don’t offend that huge majority of our population that lives in extreme poverty.

Like Monsignor Romero

There is also an urgent need for Nicaragua’s Catholic Church to tell the truth, set an example and incorporate ethics. As Pope John Paul II was dying in Rome, the streets of San Salvador were filling for a multitudinous commemoration of the martyrdom of Monsignor Romero 25 years ago. The media avalanche that followed the pope’s passing prevented those not in San Salvador itself from experiencing the glorious joy of that night, in which thousands upon thousands of people came together to celebrate a bishop of the Catholic Church who is a saint to much of the world.

In October 2002, among all his complex, controversial and abundant teachings, the pope wrote the Apostolic Exhortation “Pastores gregis,” in which he reflected on the role of bishops with respect to the challenges of today’s world. On the night that so many came together to celebrate the memory of Monsignor Romero, the rector of the Central American University of El Salvador, Jesuit José María Tojeira, opportunely evoked some of the ideas in that document.

Speaking from the doors of the Cathedral of San Salvador, whose façade was covered by a 25-meter-high painting of Monsignor Romero smiling down on his people, Tojeira said the pope had listed a series of attitudes and commitments that must characterize any good bishop: he must be father to the poor and defender of human rights, rooted in evangelical radicalism and in truth. He must be a prophet of justice and become the voice of those whose voice is never heard. Then Tojeira asked the crowd: “Doesn’t it seem that the pope is describing Monsignor Romero?

That description also offers us a Central American model of the exercise of power with ethics, truth and example.

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