|Central American University - UCA
Number 286 | Mayo 2005
The Fuel Crisis and The Sparks that Ignite It
The fare hike urged by Managua’s bus companies
due to the unstoppable rise in international oil prices
was the visible spark that ignited a new, three-week crisis.
But like the last one and surely all the ones to follow,
this crisis was inflamed by a home-grown material
that many of the sparks flying around can ignite.
Once again international news headlines announced “Violence in Nicaragua,” a replay right down to the images from a few years ago: flaming tires in Managua’s streets, burning vehicles, barricades of street paving stones, hooded youths launching homemade mortars from university gates and riot police responding with rubber bullets and tear gas in pitched battles shrouded in columns of smoke. There was one new feature this time around, however: Managua bus drivers attacking universities and their students with rocks and other projectiles, and similar but less severe disturbances at other points in the country.
Shortsightedness Oil prices have been shooting up all over the world due to the progressive reduction of traditional reserves and growing demand from China’s formidable and expanding economy, not to mention the US intervention in Iraq and its hegemonic project in that petroleum-producing region. Unfortunately, our planet depends excessively on oil to make things move. Other energy sources would make it more habitable and developing them on a major scale would guarantee our survival and demonstrate that we are “sapiens,” the only animal species capable of projecting its future. But it appears that despite the urgency of the situation, humanity is not yet ready to act in such a rational way.
Nicaragua depends on oil and its derivatives not only to move buses and cars, but also to generate 85% of our energy supply, yet another expression of the reigning shortsightedness in a country with year-round sun, major water reserves, numerous active volcanoes and nearly constant winds that are particularly strong for several months of the year. Such high dependence on oil would be even worse, were it not for the fact that electricity still hasn’t reached many rural homes, which still ward off the night’s darkness with candles, and 57% of the nation’s households still cook with firewood, a practice that contributes to the country’s tragic deforestation.
Alternative energy plans are constantly trotted out, but once the rhetoric spouted in the forums and the consultancies dies down, each new proposal is tossed on the shelf with its predecessors and nothing is ever done. The invasive shortsightedness that feeds our underdevelopment is one of the sparks that explains this and many other Nicaraguan crises, as well as the “solutions” we get landed with.
PolarizationNicaragua’s oil bill has obviously grown with the rise in international prices. Last year, the purchase of crude represented 20% of the country’s imports and consumed 52% of its export income. The predicted growth of the national economy, measured by the increase of export earnings, could be wiped out this year if the price of a barrel of oil keeps on rising as predicted. Worse yet, given that Nicaragua is utterly dependent on imported oil, increased international prices jack up all national prices, particularly squeezing that vast part of the population that is so poor there are no notches left to tighten on their belt.
There is no sign on the world horizon to suggest that oil prices will drop. In fact, the structural causes suggest that they will continue rising over the long term. While worrying reports of the rising cost of gas and diesel had been in the news in Nicaragua since January, Managua’s urban bus companies—a combination of private businesses and cooperatives—waited until early April to propose increasing the fare in the capital from 2.50 to 3 córdobas ($0.15 to $0.18). By then, a gallon of diesel had climbed to over $2.70 and gas to roughly $3.00.
By law, Managua’s municipal mayor—in this case Dionisio Marenco, who won on the FSLN ticket last November and took office in early January—is responsible for everything related to public transport in the capital. He initially approved the fare increase, but the Municipal Council members rejected it when the 850,000 Managuans poor enough to have to rely on the dreadful public transport service balked, leading him to reverse his position, while recognizing that the collective transport service was not profitable with the existing fare. Squeezed between the demands of the bus companies and the protests of the users, he gambled on the central government resolving the problem. Meanwhile, many believe that with halfway decent business management, the bus companies could show a profit even with the existing fare. But good business management is not a noted strong point among the bus owners.
While there were compelling arguments for the executive branch assuming some responsibility in the issue, tossing the ball into its court was an eminently political move. Tensions were already extremely high between Bolaños and FSLN leader Daniel Ortega by that point and it was easy to predict that the move by Marenco, one of Ortega’s closest cohorts, would increase them even more. The Sandi-nista/anti-Sandinista polarization is a spark that has activated crises in this country for over a quarter of a century, as representatives from both sides look to gain ground any chance they get.
Resignation and insensitivityPresident Bolaños dealt with the problem with four measures typical of his tarnished government administration. First was a call to resignation: the country should resign itself to living with the rising oil prices because nothing can be done. Second was to institute daylight savings time, a silly measure already tested in the early nineties by the Chamorro administration. In a country close enough to the equator that the maximum difference between the longest day of the year and the shortest is little over an hour, it doesn’t save any daylight to speak of, but it does affect Central American “integration,” since none of the other countries use it. Third was to announce a 15% increase in the minimum wage, which hadn’t been adjusted since 2003, as the best and only real solution on offer. And fourth was to lay all the blame on Mayor Marenco as the bus drivers, tired of the run-around, began charging an unauthorized fare of 3 córdobas with the argument that they couldn’t keep on absorbing losses and the university students began engaging in their own protests (“our people can’t keep paying that price”).
Although international oil prices are indeed outside the government’s control and the regulation of transport prices in Managua does fall to the mayor, President Bolaños fed the crisis with that smug look he gets when he presents yet another solution he didn’t bother to negotiate with anybody. And his tiresome slogan that Nicaragua has never had it so good as in his “new era” didn’t help matters.
During his inauguration as President, Bolaños claimed that he aspired to be the best ruler in Nicaraguan history; the Nicaraguan equivalent of an Abraham Lincoln or Winston Churchill. But being a good ruler in Nicaragua means at the very least sensing the pain of what is happening to the majority of the population, and adequately and genuinely expressing that empathy in both words and deeds. It also means breaking with the resigned pragmatism that runs through our entire history, generating fatalism among the poor and insensitivity among the rich, annulling creativity and self-esteem and leading us to think of ourselves as mere stowaways on ships adrift in the sea of international realities. The coldness with which President Bolaños presents himself as a resigned victim of problems to which he is supposed to respond by virtue of the post to which he was elected is another spark that has kept inflaming the crises of the three years since he took office.
For all his desire to go down in history as a world-class political leader, Bolaños has contributed heavily to a situation—admittedly not entirely of his own making—in which he finds himself heading “a government in the opposition,” and he is not doing it with much aplomb. A good example of his clumsiness is the following statement delivered in hopes of recovering from a new humiliation by his adversaries, in which he purported to reveal the brilliant thinking behind his institution of daylight savings time, which was causing additional irritation among the population. “I knew they wanted to stage a national work stoppage starting on Monday [April 18],” he explained with that same smug look, “but fortunately we had the skill and intelligence to disarm them, to dissect them with a scalpel. We put the clocks forward so that would be the main topic of conversation that day, and thus left them flapping about like wounded parrots.”
Such course foolishness presented as sagacity by a wealthy, self-satisfied, stonehearted old man combined with a heavy dose of theatricality, farce, insults and mockery of his opponents keeps the emotional sparks that also feed the crises flying.
An excess of testosteroneThe violence began to mount on April 18 (Bolaños’ razor-sharp DST scalpel had clearly not clipped any wings) and did not abate for eight days. The vandalism in Managua included a dozen state and private vehicles torched in the streets, a hundred university students and other Managuans arrested, two police officers seriously wounded and dozens of demonstrators also hurt. The weeklong urban bus strike following attacks on their vehicles led to the suspension of school classes and many commercial activities. Those who had to show up for work were forced to make the long, hot trek on foot or scrape up extra money for one of the rickety old pick-ups that always pitch in as sardine-packed improvised transport at such moments. The overall economic losses were valued at some $5 million.
That the testosterone levels of the “vandals” in the street were running violently high was no real surprise; more worrying were the runaway levels among the figureheads of the crisis, including the President himself. It brought to mind the kind of verbal escalation and aggressive bullheadedness of so many men in so many bars to show “who’s got the bigger balls.” Such duels often end in death, but never solve this idiotic biological dispute, much less anything more important. Such unrestrained political machismo is a national embarrassment and must be denounced alongside the pact, because it encourages and legitimizes the kind of machismo that reigns in so many households, the spark behind so many silenced crises that also impede our democracy and hold back our development.
Machista foolhardinessThe testosterone levels peaked on April 26. The previous morning, in an urgent meeting called by Mayor Marenco with all the country’s other 151 mayors, the 86 who attended—mainly Sandinistas and some Liberal allies—eagerly signed a document demanding that Bolaños assume responsibility for resolving the crisis and calling for his resignation as President if he could not do so. In the National Assembly, PLC legislators joined their Sandinista colleagues to back the mayors’ position.
With this challenge still red-hot, some eight thousand demonstrators took part in a march to the presidential offices organized by the FSLN structures the next day to protest the bus fare hike, among other complaints. It was an insufferably hot, humid day, close to 100 degrees F. At about midday, President Bolaños emerged from the garage with several of his ministers in luxurious SUVs. Suddenly the caravan stopped, he stepped out and, flanked by police officers and personal bodyguards, strode over to “dialogue” with the demonstrators restrained behind barriers (the white hat he wore and his measured swagger inspired one journalist to compare him to the imperturbable Johnny Walker). As he surely must have expected, he was received with insults, stones and bags of water. One rock broke the skin of one of his sons. Luckily, his act of temerity did not trigger the chaos that it well could have.
Like a machista rancher checking his fences, the President offered us an image unusual even in our interminable political one-act farces. Our leaders’ seeming lack of self-respect and seriousness could well be why they don’t respect us or take us seriously. Right after this superlative imprudence, the President, in his best macho style, delivered a crude and provocative challenge to the mayors, the university rectors and the now angry population, failing to mention some of the more deserving actors. Yet, rather remarkably, the conflict was over within another 48 hours.
Why and for whom?The protagonists of the street violence blamed President Bolaños for failing to resolve the transport crisis, and while they were at it they also blamed him for the unemployment crisis, the generalized rise in prices and his submission to both the international lending agencies and Yankee imperialism. Not to be outdone, Bolaños spent the entire crisis blaming Daniel Ortega and “Sandinismo” for everything that was happening in the streets, taking care to include Ortega’s allies in the pact and in the disturbances.
And he’s not altogether wrong. The political objective of the street violence—Sandinistas in the streets and Liberals in the parliamentary rear-guard—was to corner Bolaños, erode his popularity even further, expose his weaknesses, boycott him, blackmail him. The FSLN and the PLC have been working together on this strategy since November, dividing the work between them.
The goal does not appear to be to remove Bolaños from office, but to force events so that he finishes his term in the worst conditions imaginable. The caudillo bosses of the two parties are gambling that this will guarantee them enough votes in the 2006 presidential elections to legitimize their pacted strategy: the bi-party dictatorship for which they designed, pushed through and will implement the constitutional reforms.
The army walks the tightropeThe National Police acted with its accustomed force during those days, occasionally excessive and somewhat ineffective. The use of rubber bullets and teargas only enraged the university students, who responded with even greater violence, driven by both resources and ideology. If the police had the edge with the potentially lethal rubber bullets, the students were not far behind with homemade mortars, which can kill as well.
The sustained filming of the street skirmishes by several TV channels, sometimes for hours on end as if they were making a full-scale war film rather than filling a 2-minute news slot, also contributed to the violence. How many of the students shouldering mortar launchers might have decided to show off their skills to the national audience only because they knew the camera was on them?
Nicaragua’s army conducted maneuvers—supposedly “programmed beforehand”—on April 20, after the street riots had heated up significantly, thus raising suspicions, as seeing armed soldiers on combat order in the streets is always intimidating. On the 26th, the President announced that he had ordered the army to remain “on alert” in case the police were unable to control the violence.
The army, which has remained rock-solid in Nicaragua’s atmosphere of institutional fragility and is thus virtually the only state institution to conserve its credibility when all about are losing theirs, has bent over backwards to remain neutral. It’s a tough task, as the army must always be braced to receive problematic orders from a government in an increasingly confusing political struggle and is under constant pressure from the US government.
With a show of prudence, the new army chief, Omar Halleslevens limited himself to very measured declarations that avoided maximizing the crisis without minimizing it. He hit that middle note perfectly when he stated that “We Nicaraguans are very good at elevating any problem to the nth degree.”
Obstinately rejected alternativesDuring the crisis, the rebelling students insisted they would not let up until the fare returned to 2.50 córdobas, the striking drivers reiterated that they would not take their buses back on the streets until the new fare was authorized or the difference subsidized, and the government insisted that “subsidy” is a bad word in a market economy. Meanwhile, it is estimated that during the seven worst days, three thousand people were involved in the visible incidents in some dozen hot-spots around Managua and certain points of other cities.
The longer the dispute dragged on, the more proposals were suggested: differentiated tariffs (higher prices in new, more comfortable buses that would have to be imported), reduction of the government sales tax on every gallon of fuel, the use of ethanol as a fuel for vehicles as is already being done in other countries...
Mayor Marenco, who has already lost the popularity that brought him to office, offered one of the more rational proposals based on the following data: vehicles consume 200,000 gallons of fuel a day in Managua, of which collective transport uses 20,000 in the form of diesel, which is cheaper, while private transport accounts for all the rest, primarily using gasoline. “If the private vehicles would pay 1 córdoba more in tax for every gallon they buy, 9 córdobas would be collected to subsidize each gallon of diesel for public transport,” concluded Marenco. The government rejected his proposal as populist, dogmatically arguing that in a free market economy, differences are worked out by supply and demand.
The Sandinista Renovation Movement, allied with the FSLN in the Convergence since 2000 but now backing away again since the new pact, offered another rational proposal, which would affect both executive branch officials and the irresponsible legislative representatives. It proposed eliminating their free fuel quotas (the legislators get 200 gallons a month each) and freezing the purchase of new vehicles for two years. That proposal obviously didn’t get many votes either.
In the end, the negotiators set aside neoliberal economic dogma and caved into the worst populism, officially and theatrically terminating the bus fare crisis with a midnight agreement. As a result, Managua’s discredited Teamster-style bus association was awarded a three-month state subsidy whose cost will be shared by the central and Managua governments. No other national trade organization has been so favored, even the most productive, honest and efficient.
In the interim, other, more long-term solutions will supposedly be sought, but will they really? These disorders tend to pop up suddenly as if on a spring, grow and develop anarchi-cally and violently, then die in a negotiation that leaves us virtually where we began. Until further notice.
The sin we live inThe increased oil prices must be seen as a central problem by all of us in Nicaragua, from the President on down, but particularly those who are higher on the ladder of power. And that means thinking and acting immediately to distribute as equitably as possible the high costs of this problem, which we already know is not going away soon, if ever.
A first step would be to acknowledge the epicenter of our crisis: the unjust and scandalous inequality to which we are supposed to resign ourselves. Nicaragua has one of the worst distributions of income and wealth in all of Latin America, which is saying a lot, because the region is one of the most unjust and unequal on the planet. The wealthiest 20% of Nicaragua’s households concentrates 61% of the income while the poorest 20% survives on only 3.6%. Put another way, 78% of the Nicaraguan population struggles to survive on the equivalent of under US$2 a day. Anyone who has to take two buses to get to work and another two to return, which is extremely common given Managua’s chaotic urban sprawl, spends over a quarter of that squalid income just to get to and from their miserably paid job, given the lack of a transfer pass system. This country, which claims to be Christian and whose political class constantly claims to be speaking in God’s name, appears resigned to such profound structural sin.
Neither the market’s invisible hand, nor the laws of supply and demand nor the highly encouraged foreign investment—mainly in the form of sweatshops—will resolve such injustice, despite President Bolaños’ assurances when he deigns to address our plight by lauding business schemes from the economic catechism of which he is a disciple. Another hand is required; in fact, the solution requires all the hands it can get. The extreme poverty of that 78% of the population is directly linked to the extreme wealth of 2%. And that in turn has largely to do with Nicaragua’s unjust tax system, where 90% of the taxes collected come from direct taxes on those who have the least to spare.
This injustice is a spark for any potential crisis, whether real or artificial, prefabricated or spontaneous. The majority of Nicaraguans live their life in unconscionable conditions and the resulting desperation could push many of them into any battle line, even when they don’t necessarily know in whose service they are fighting.
The illicit domestic debtBecause the crisis was treated as a Managua phenomenon, the interim solution of subsidizing its transport system did not address the similar problem of inter-urban transport, which meant problems soon cropped up in Tipitapa, one of Managua’s neighboring bedroom municipalities. In any event, everyone involved referred to the “lack of resources,” but is it true that the government has no resources to deal with the social needs of the majorities, many of which have been getting worse and will worsen even more as long as oil prices continue to rise?
The Bolaños government has increased tax collection, although many banks, businesses and wealthy individuals still evade any tax like the plague, be it municipal road and property taxes or national income tax. This government also finally won the prize of foreign debt payment relief after years of harsh belt-tightening efforts by all of society. So, if the Bolaños administration is collecting significantly more in taxes and paying out significantly less in debt service payments, shouldn’t it have the resources to invest enough in education and health care to make at least some visible improvements, particularly since part of the deal of the foreign debt reduction was precisely to invest the savings in poverty reduction?
But there are no improvements to be seen, because these extra funds are going to pay off the domestic debt with the banks. This onerous payment—the state owes various banks nearly US$2 billion—is even more questionable when one considers the debt’s origins, a political issue that economist Néstor Avendaño never tires of underscoring. “This debt,” he explains, “has three major illicit roots: the property confiscations in the eighties, the bank collapses in the nineties, and some open market operations with high interest and value maintenance that have maximized the Central Bank’s losses since the second half of the last decade.”
PrioritiesIf the oil problem has pushed Nicaragua into an emergency, shouldn’t someone propose prioritizing the renegotiation of the domestic debt in the name of social justice? Little chance: there’s no flexibility from the banks and no political desire from either the government or the legislators involved in the PLC-FSLN pact.
And everything indicates that the international financing institutions and bilateral cooperation are endorsing the government’s prioritization of the debt payment, even at the cost of eroding social spending on health and education and thus leaving Bolaños without the domestic support that improving the life of the neediest population would have provided him. The unconditional support they give him with one hand is taken away with the other, depriving him of any possibility of building a base of support.
It is still the domestic debt more than rising oil prices that could sink Nicaragua’s economy. But will we ever see sustained demonstrations in front of the banks that are not only benefiting from payment of this debt but have been exonerated from paying taxes for years? Might we see “grass-roots” student leaders accusing bankers of pocketing the resources that would alleviate so many social tragedies? If that were to happen, the rebelling university students would be going after the right target, because the payment of the domestic debt is Nicaragua’s most explosive spark today as it almost silently consumes the country’s resources.
Of a piece with the pactThese are some of the objective, structural and transitory sparks that helped ignite this crisis and will do the same with future ones, but they don’t explain everything. This time, even more than usual, the population seemed convinced that “something else is behind this,” and, as usual, they were right.
That “something else” is that the crisis was of a piece with the political-institutional disorder in which the country has been mired since last November, when the FSLN and PLC negotiated their latest pact. This new pact involved the passing of constitutional reforms that transferred significant faculties from the executive to the legislative branch and a scheme of government controlled by the upper echelons of both parties, bound together in a power-sharing strategy to the exclusion of all other political options. With the virtually absolute power the two parties and their strong-boss leaders have over all state branches and major institutions, it doesn’t really matter which of the two is elected to the presidency because they have already divvied up the levers of power. This model, which perpetuates a two-headed dictatorship, guarantees FSLN leader Daniel Ortega and PLC leader Arnoldo Alemán that nothing that even remotely smacks of a third alternative, an authentic opposition, can sneak up on them any time soon.
As those reforms were being pushed through the National Assembly, and well before they began to be officially implemented, President Bolaños tried to engage Ortega and Alemán in a power struggle, parrying their obvious strength with his international support. That round climaxed in January and was “resolved” by the setting up of a farcical “tripartite dialogue” involving the executive branch, the PLC and the FSLN, in which Cardinal Miguel Obando y Bravo was named as a witness-guarantor, at the request of Alemán and Ortega.
A humiliated PresidentIn this make-believe dialogue, President Bolaños has been at a total and humiliating disadvantage. On March 29, in a desperate attempt to shift the odds a bit, he got the Central American Court of Justice, a body with no representativity whatever, to issue a resolution declaring the constitutional reforms “inapplicable” on the grounds that they violate the independence between state branches.
Only hours later, the FSLN-PLC team countered with a sentence from Nicaragua’s Supreme Court, which they control together thanks to an earlier pact, declaring the Central American Court’s resolution “inapplicable.” That was the institutional backdrop to the transport crisis.
In this unequal triumvirate with the PLC-FSLN, Bolaños’ support comes from abroad, wrapped in declarations and warnings about the future of economic aid, while domestically the two caudillos impose their will with little fuss from the helpless, confused, indifferent or fed-up majority, which is far too busy just struggling to survive. At the same time, it must be admitted that significant sectors of the country’s cities and rural areas are under the sway of the genuine leadership that Ortega and Alemán still enjoy, despite everything they’ve done to abuse it.
Energetic students, spent leadersIn that panorama of general physiological anemia and social anomie, university students can always be counted on to take to the streets to protest in significant numbers. It’s an historic tradition as well as a biological and social reality. Not only do they feel things more deeply, they also have more energy and time and fewer family obligations.
The organizers and leaders of April’s protests expected a lot from their efforts. At the outset, they predicted that the bus strike in Managua would provoke a general strike in the capital. While that never even looked like happening, the formula of a small, manipulated, active group joined by some idealistic fighters was enough to “make Managua burn,” put the government in check and turn “the violence in Nicaragua” into international news.
At the same time, however, this crisis showed that fewer and fewer students are joining the flavor-of-the-month protests and fewer adults feel represented by a university youth whose protests are marked by anarchy, lack of leadership, vacuous slogans and dispersion, not to mention manipulation. The current student leadership, which was not democratically elected and doesn’t act democratically, is beholden to the FSLN structures. Despite all this, however, the national problems are so serious that eager young people still gather around this leadership, ready to fight to change things.
The silence of the LiberalsWhile the PLC has no real influence over the university sector, the Liberals curiously never condemned the “violence of the Sandinista mobs” during the disturbances, as they always used to do. They instead backed the protests with their silence as well as other resources, limiting their criticism to Bolaños’ ineptitude. The tasks were skillfully distributed in the different settings of the crisis: the streets, the parliament, the media...
The most explicit Liberal legislators had already announced in mid-April that if President Bolaños continued seeking international support or threatening to decree an emergency and call in the army to resolve the institutional disorder—as had been continually rumored since January—they would paralyze the country. Nicaragua, they warned, would see Sandinistas and Liberals fighting side-by-side behind barricades and roadblocks.
The pact’s triple-headerAfter the clash between the Central American and Nicaraguan courts, a new round began in the power play between Bolaños and the pact’s representatives as the university protests were getting underway, in which the street violence favored the PLC-FSLN.
The pact made itself felt very strongly on April 12. The National Assembly named four Supreme Court justices; as expected, they were split evenly, two Sandinistas and one Liberal reelected, along with one new Liberal. Also as expected, the legislators paid no attention to Bolaños’ proposed list of candidates. That same day, the Assembly members also finally approved a wage regulation bill for high government posts, in which they cut all salaries but their own, which actually increased by $425 with an accounting sleight-of-hand between gross salary and net salary. And to cap off the day, they rejected an IDB loan that Bolaños planned to use, according to the legislators, to pay costly con-sultancies headed by his closest allies.
In response to this triple-header, Bolaños announced that his government would abandon the tripartite dialogue because so many agreements had been breached. He alleged that Daniel Ortega had promised him in February that the justices would be elected by consensus. Bolaños then faxed his complaints to Cardinal Obando, cloistered away in the papal conclave in Rome, in a letter that Obando would later allege to have received “all smudged” in a fax for which he himself had to pay. “It cost me over $100,” he complained.
The property issue Within this Ortega-Alemán political offensive, two new institutions created by the pact—the Superintendence of Public Services (SISEP) and the Institute of Reformed Urban and Rural Property—are strategic in that they transfer crucial competencies from the executive to the legislative branch. The legislators are formally in charge of appointing those who will head both entities and have already drafted the laws that will govern them.
is as crucial as ever
In the struggle between Bolaños and the two caudillos, nothing has made the President more nervous than these two new institutions. On April 26, at the peak of the crisis, the National Assembly approved the law creating the SISEP, despite warnings that doing so would affect the bogged-down tripartite dialogue. It was a clear provocation, the political-legislative equivalent of firing a mortar, and was followed by passage of the law creating the Property Institute the very next day. In the pact, Alemán and Ortega had already agreed that an FSLN member would direct the Property Institute while a Liberal would be in charge of the SISEP. The latter’s four intendances (water, energy, telecommunications and consumers) would be split between the two parties.
The property problems that the new institute “will resolve” are nothing short of enormous. Some date back a quarter of a century, involve top leaders of the entire political class, affect Sandinista and anti-Sandinista military veterans, and/or have to do with “piñatas” or “huacas” (terms related to major moments in which Ortega’s Sandinista government and Alemán’s Liberal government, respectively, got caught with their hand in the till). They also affect some 760 Nicaraguans who are now US citizens and are demanding indemnification or the return of properties confiscated in the eighties. Based on the Helms-Burton Law, the US defends the confiscated properties of its citizens anywhere in the world, even if they were not US citizens at the time of confiscation. The US government has climbed back into the conflict through this particular window.
Alemán’s release... as everThe US government is, of course, following the crisis in Nicaragua closely and exaggerating it. It even warned potential US tourists not to visit until July, and that if they do, they should “avoid crowds.” But Washington’s strategic objective in Nicaragua is to “avoid” something else: the return of Ortega—or any other Sandinista—to government. To that end it has taken on the difficult task of unifying the “democratic forces”—understood as anything that isn’t Sandinista. It is willing to do anything in pursuit of that goal, including endorsing Arnoldo Alemán’s release on any pretext the Liberals can fabricate, aware that he is the main obstacle to PLC-Bolaños reunification and hence to the unification of anti-Sandinista voters. It is gambling that Alemán’s release will allow the reorganization and revitalization of the PLC, which it believes has the only electoral machinery able to beat Ortega in the elections.
In the heat of the crisis, the Bush government added its own sparks to the conflict, warning both the Bolaños government and the PLC that a new property institute led by a Sandinista could lead to the cancellation of aid to Nicaragua. It clearly does not trust that the FSLN will facilitate the recovery of its citizens’ property. The PLC immediately latched onto this new pressure and dragged its feet on approval of the law creating the Property Institute. This led to the most serious distancing to date in the pact’s seemingly undetainable strategy.
More than that, the US pressure provided the PLC a magnificent opportunity to arm twist in three directions, as its leaders declared immodestly. The naming of a Sandinista to head the Property Institute would depend on Alemán’s freedom. And to accomplish that, Ortega, Bolaños and the United States would each have to pay a political price. Thus it was that the thieving former President found his way yet again into the center of the crisis, to the nation’s shame.
The “solution”If the bus fare crisis was “solved” with a three-month subsidy, how should Nicaragua’s never-ending political crisis be solved? “Institutional” formulas proliferated in those steamy April days: a state of emergency; a Fujimori-style executive dissolution of parliament; a technical coup d’état by the legislators or the President or even the Army; the convening of a Constituent Assembly; removing the President and naming a government junta of notables; the President’s resignation and early elections… No outlandish idea was left unmentioned.
In a communiqué that again distanced it from the FSLN, the Sandi-nista Renovation Movement analyzed the national situation as follows: “We Nicaraguans have clearly identified those mainly responsible for the failure to confront the economic and social situation seriously and with a sense of nation. In their merciless game of mutual accusations, political revenge and manipulation, they trap the population between two options: on the one hand an inept government that turns its back on the majority’s pressing needs and an increasingly tense atmosphere, always awaiting the intromission of outside forces; and on the other the two irresponsible political parties and the state branches they control, always on the prowl for sectarian benefits at the cost of the population’s suffering.”
And where were these “outside forces” during all this? A communi-qué released on April 29 by the Movement of Sandinista Unity, headed by economist Alejandro Martínez Cuenca, states: “We are concerned about the words of the permanent IMF representative in Nicaragua on April 26, in a meeting called by the World Bank to report on cooperation with Nicaragua. In it, he unblushingly said that the oil price rise is ‘normal’ for them and that the IMF ‘does not contemplate any particular consideration for the effects of the fuel rise’ on Nicaragua’s economic program from 2005 forward. Even more scandalous is that the representative stated that ‘nor has the government of Nicaragua, which is its only valid interlocutor, presented any proposal to date related to including this issue in its negotiations.” The communiqué also rejects “the vision expressed by the executive branch and insinuated by the IMF representative that the solution to the problem caused by the price rises must be exclusively via the market and ‘that those who have money pay and those who don’t can walk,’” as President Bolaños stonily expressed during the crisis.
Like the bus fare crisis, the larger political crisis ended not with a solution but merely with Bolaños’ initiative to “relaunch” the farcical tripartite dialogue as a “national” dialogue, bringing civil society into the debates. As before, it would enjoy the “good offices” of witness-guarantor Cardinal Miguel Obando, fresh from participating in the election of Benedict XVI, which the political class pompously described as a “national pride.”
Much ado about nothing The crisis ended on April 28 with a postponement, not a solution. Bolaños refused to subsidize, but a subsidy is what there is. Many Managua residents took to the streets to “bring down the government,” but the government is still there, and there it will stay. The same script will almost certainly be repeated in another three months, when the temporary subsidy ends, if not before.
With a barely straight face, one reporter referred to the “normality” that followed as a return of “peace” and lauded Bolaños for his “courage” in irresponsibly facing off the march against him. And there were of course those who believed that the prayers of the recently returned Cardinal ended the violence.
A cultural mutationNeither courage nor subsidies nor prayers will prevent the worsening of the oil crisis. It could even lead to a mutation in the wasteful individualist, consumer-driven, vehicle-addicted, irresponsible and inequity-insensitive society we have constructed in Nicaragua with the mean and stingy political class in the lead.
Mutations cause shifts in evolution. This crisis-mutation could force all of society to evolve, proposing, among many other tasks, a genuine population policy that could halt its irrational growth. This would necessarily involve a sex education policy that in turn would necessarily involve assuming and implementing public education and health policies that are genuinely secular and not based on conservative religious fundamentalism. This is only one example of the many issues we never put on the agenda. Will this urgent cultural task be performed? Who will raise it between mortar blasts and verbal testosterone blasts?
Other mutationsThis crisis-mutation could also oblige all of society, especially Managua society, to propose a culture of personal, family, collective and institutional savings and austerity. This would necessarily involve renouncing certain trappings, an idea currently blocked by that veneer of modernity we have donned, which translates into centering happiness on pleasure and status in an irrational consumption that is way out of line with the country we live in.
It would, for example, oblige us to question the thousands of imported high-ticket, gas-guzzling luxury SUVs. In the best of all options, it could lead to the fostering of a bicycle culture in the capital among all those overweight, fast-food consuming middle- and upper-class youths whose parents gave them an SUV just for the asking. It could lead us to actively and reflectively abandon many of the individualist devil-may-care attitudes into which our society has been falling.
A mutation in the stateTaking seriously the crisis caused by oil, which could reach $100 a barrel, might also force the dismantling of the state forged by the 1999 pact and all that it has done since, as well as all that the new pact is doing right now.
This is in fact the proposal of Alejandro Martínez Cuenca—who, like former Managua Mayor Herty Lewites, aspires to the presidential candidacy on the FSLN ticket. How can we afford so many high-level posts in the Supreme Court, the electoral branch, parliament, the Comptroller General’s office, the executive branch and the various new institutions? As Martínez Cuenca points out, “There simply won’t be the resources for it. In 2004 we spent nearly $300 million on fuel and the way crude prices are rising we can expect this to be over $500 million in 2005.”
How long can this go on?The pact of 2000 was a political deal that even then had serious budgetary consequences, and the oil crisis could further aggravate such irresponsibility. How long can we expect this to go on? And that question doesn’t refer so much to the oil crisis as to the irresponsibility toward it.
As long as the “solutions” come from the very people creating the problem and are based on new deals born of even tougher negotiations, we can only assume—and the idea is very painful—that it could go on for a very long time.