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  Number 289 | Agosto 2005
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Nicaragua

Garza Returns to Untie the Gordian Knot

The overpowering US influence on our politics has been a constant throughout Nicaragua’s history. Former ambassador Oliver Garza has just come back and the entire political class is hanging on his every move, watching to see what ace he will pull out of his sleeve.

Nitlápan-Envío team

Oliver Garza, US ambassador to Nicaragua during the government of Arnoldo Alemán, returned on July 22. His successor, Barbara Moore, has just completed her stint and although Bush appointed Paul Trivelli to replace her months ago, Garza was sent ahead with the official title of “interim business attaché” on what an embassy spokesperson referred to as a “very special” mission.

The “business” he came to deal with was made clear even before his arrival. One task was to undo the PLC pact with Daniel Ortega and his group using a variant Bush’s famous post 9/11 challenge: “You’re either with the United States or you’re with Ortega.” The other was to unify the anti-Sandinista Right behind a single presidential candidate under a variant of the equally famous anti-Bush challenge during last year’s US election campaign: “Anybody but the FSLN.” How long his interim presence lasts will depend on how long he needs to take care of business. And things seem to be moving quickly.

The Gordian knot

The PLC-FSLN pact, which is at the center of the legislative-executive conflict, is an authentic “Gordian knot.” Its illegitimacy notwithstanding, it is tied with great legal care and the figure of Arnoldo Alemán is right at its center. Alemán’s future—his freedom, his lead role in national politics, his control of the Constitutionalist Liberal Party (PLC), which still recognizes him as its chief—partially explains both the causes and the consequences of this pact, which was designed to ensure both parties a share of the spoils through a power-sharing formula that ignores the interests of the majority of people.

So far no one has been able to untie this knot. None of the national and international artillery President Bolaños has trained on it has had any effect. Nor has the US State Depart-ment’s continuing cancellation of entry visas for certain Liberals—ostensibly on grounds of corrupt activities but clearly to punish them for their loyalty to Alemán and/or tolerance of Ortega. (Two more lost their shopping rights in Miami this past month: PLC leader and National Assembly representative María Haydée Osuna and Supreme Electoral Council president Roberto Rivas, Cardinal Obando’s protégé.) The OAS sent its new secretary general, José Miguel Insulza, into the fray with the doomed mission of either undoing or redoing the knot. The OAS is keeping special envoy Dante Caputo in Nicaragua with the same mission impossible.

Washington sent Oliver Garza, a career Justice Department official who developed a great friendship with Alemán during his corrupt administration and a Latino who is closer to the ravings and whims of Latin American politics than US functionaries of the Barbara Moore mold, to break the Gordian knot by hook or crook. A momentous destiny.

Powell, Moore, Fisk:
Open mouth, insert foot

A string of US policy blunders so far during the Bolaños government have only helped tighten and tangle the knot. In 2003, then-Secretary of State Colin Powell came to Nicaragua to let it be known that Bolaños was to abandon the agreements he had reached with Ortega that had made it possible to strip Alemán of his immunity, try him and even sentence him. The idea was that cold-shouldering Ortega would win Bolaños back the support of the PLC, erstwhile governing party turned opposition. Big mistake: Bolaños in fact ended up with no support from anyone.

At the end of that same year, Ambassador Moore cooked up a recipe for a new Liberal National Assembly board that she insisted would repair relations between Bolaños and the PLC. But her recipe didn’t gel because the main interest of Alemán’s loyal legislators was, and still is, to free him. Where was the value in cozying up to the guy who got him convicted but doesn’t have the clout to get him off ?

Everybody knows that Alemán was sentenced to 20 years in December 2003 for major crimes he unquestionably committed. They also know that it is Daniel Ortega who holds the key to his release through his control of the judicial branch in general and the Appeals Court’s penal bench in specific, where Alemán’s appeal is currently gathering dust awaiting the eminently political decision about the timing and other details of his ultimate release.

After the November 2004 municipal elections, which the FSLN swept handily in alliance with the National Convergence, it was Under Secretary of State Dan Fisk’s turn to come to Nicaragua. With the diplomatic tact of a sledgehammer, he referred to Ortega and Alemán as obsolete caudillo politicians, discarded and rejected by the United States. That clever move pushed the PLC and the FSLN, both of which deeply resented the impertinence, even closer together.

Despite the mounting evidence of such erroneous diplomacy, Roger Noriega and Otto Reich, two high-level government officials from Bush’s first term, threw even more salt in the wounds just before Garza’s arrival. Seemingly deficient at learning from experience, they made extensive, highly publicized and aggressive declarations reiterating US rejection of Alemán, whom Reich openly called a “thief,” and issued the thinly veiled threat that his party had better abandon its pact with the FSLN if it wanted to remain on good terms with their powerful government. Revealing her own training in the sledgehammer school of diplomacy, outgoing Ambassador Moore openly confessed in her farewell statements that the United States “is frequently invited to intervene [in national politics] without the people knowing it.” And, of course, it never fails to oblige once assured that doing so is in its own narrow self-interest.

A Gordian strategy

Following the evidence of his three consecutive electoral defeats, Daniel Ortega is basing the strategy of his fourth straight presidential campaign on ensuring that the anti-Sandinista opposition remains divided between those who want nobody but Alemán and those who want anybody but him. Alemán’s imprisonment and his megalomaniacal traits feed into that division, which, if it endures, may well guarantee Ortega victory.

Alemán’s indisputable leadership of the PLC, his unshakable determination to continue controlling the party and participating in politics, his maneuvering skills and the accumulated rejection of him by both Nicara-gua’s oligarchic big business, which finances elections, and the US government, which exerts pressure, could combine to keep Nicaragua’s anti-Sandinistas divided. In fact, the divisions triggered by the “Gordian factor” have filled every single day of Bolaños’ term so far with turbulence.

Alemán’s eventual release suits Ortega, but not now, not so soon. Ensuring that he remains a prisoner until shortly before the elections—or even just after them—would go a long way toward keeping the Liberals and other anti-Sandinistas divided, resulting in two rightwing presidential candidates and thus splitting the anti-Sandinista vote.

Alemán’s fleeting freedom

Garza arrived to a country in full-fledged institutional disorder. OAS envoy Dante Caputo was trying to get the government back to the much-touted tripartite dialogue table with the FSLN and PLC from whence it had withdrawn when it became clear that three was a crowd. Far from idled by the hiatus in the dialogue, the FSLN and PLC were merrily pushing forward with a legislative process to strip Bolaños and seven of his ministers of their immunity so they could stand trial on accusations of electoral crimes. Garza’s task was a tough one, but he had one advantage: the electoral winds have begun to blow strong, and they are capable of moving everything and everyone in Nicaragua.

On July 25, three days after Garza’s arrival, the country got a strong taste of Alemán’s skills. Following a carefully plotted scheme that drew on the financial resources and public and personal relations of his Liberal cohorts, Alemán escaped from right under his jailer’s nose. It was quite a goal.

Alemán moved freely around Managua for 60 hours armed with a legal “family coexistence” ruling—a conditional release limited to the department of Managua but one step short of definitive freedom—granted by Judge Roxana Zapata, who is in charge of the low-level task of administering his sentence and penitentiary vigilance. She based her decision on a forensic report that he suffers no fewer than ten chronic ailments that are difficult to manage in a prison situation. One doesn’t need to be a top-notch doctor to recognize that most of the problems on the list—various heart and blood pressure problems, back problems, etc.—are related directly or indirectly to his massive obesity, which has apparently not dropped during his years of luxury imprisonment on his own hacienda. Journalists were quick to reveal that Nicaragua’s penal centers are currently housing 431 prisoners who suffer far more serious illnesses in miserable prison conditions, without any judge granting them house arrest, much less the free run of Managua that Zapata provided Alemán.

The ex-President used his time to go to the Cathedral to thank the image of Christ on the cross, attend a mass for his deceased brother involving a brief “homily” on love, and visit Cardinal Obando, accompanied by his wife. His declarations were emotional, his expression contrite. He announced that he would dedicate the final years of his life to raising his young children.

During the several days Alemán was loose, declarations abounded about the man, some raving about his leadership and others reminding everybody that he was a convicted criminal. Among the declarations in his favor, perhaps the most unanticipated came from the new archbishop of Managua, Leopoldo Brenes, during Nindirí’s patron saint celebrations on July 26. “Alemán is unquestionably a leader and can contribute to the country’s development,” announced Brenes. “Together with the Church, Dr. Alemán has promoted dialogue and we hope he will now offer his grain of sand and good will to ease all the tensions.”

Another unfunny tragicomedy

Alemán’s flight caused commotion in public opinion, but surprised no one. It is a given that he will eventually go free. The only discussion among the country’s political class is when and how. No one believes that Alemán will be deprived of his freedom for 20 long years; in fact, few believed he would still be serving his sentence today. Nonetheless, seeing him free again, speaking on the news, and knowing he was “at large” in Managua had a powerful impact.

Who had slipped him the file? Who had tunneled him out of his cell? In short, who was behind his surprising flight? Not for a second did anyone think Judge Zapata could have acted on her own and very few considered Alemán himself as the culprit. Interpretations rained down. President Bolaños blamed Daniel Ortega, while the US Embassy pointed the finger at the “infamous forces of the political pact.” Ortega, whose lack of composure suggested he was as surprised as anyone, threw the blame back on the newly arrived Garza, arguing that he had cooked up the whole thing in what he called a “pact of the corrupt” between Bolaños and Alemán. Warming to the theme in subsequent speeches, he missed no opportunity to further the interpretation of an imperialist conspiracy.

But the jail key was not long out of Ortega’s hand. Given that Judge Zapata’s ruling was legally fragile, if not absurd, the Sandinista judges in the Appeals Court reversed it with all due speed and ordered Alemán to return immediately to his hacienda-prison. And there he remained, for the time being at least.

Although the Appeals Court decision was legally well founded, everyone interpreted it politically, although not all in the same way. For Ortega, law prevailed anew and the imperial conspiracy had been foiled. The government saw Alemán’s return to his poolside prison as a “triumph of the people,” yet another repudiation of the pact by civil society, which had twisted Ortega’s arm until he was forced to rectify his error through the Appeals Court. Consternation reigned in the PLC as its leaders quickly retooled their own habitual interpretation for public consumption: Alemán is innocent; he was released legally and is now back incarcerated again thanks to the Bolaños-Ortega pact of 2002.

One thing is certain: Alemán’s short-lived flight yet again revealed one of the pact’s most serious institutional consequences: absolutely nobody believes in the courts anymore, even when its judges act within the spirit as well as the letter of the law. After so many tragicomic episodes, no one believes that any judge decides any case in strict accordance with the law anymore. In fact, no one believes in the law at all.

Sam-7s and CAFTA

On the way to untying the Gordian knot, Oliver Garza had two prior and complementary tasks involving the PLC. The first was to get it to approve the Central America-Dominican Republic-US Free Trade Agreement (DR-CAFTA) and the second to get its backing for Bolaños to destroy the last of the Soviet SAM-7 surface-to-air missiles the army has had in its arsenal since the eighties.

The second issue was easy. Quickly shucking off their pact-induced support for the FSLN as expressed in a Weapons Law preventing Bolaños from unilaterally destroying the SAM-7s, the PLC legislators announced that they would reform that law.

The first issue was a bit more complicated, since the PLC bench in the National Assembly had been using the trade agreement’s passage as a particularly important chip in negotiating Alemán’s freedom. The best justification for holding off approval had been to wait and see if the US Congress would approve it, and with what changes. Finally, on July 27, the House of Representatives caved in to intense pressure from Bush and, following a debate full of ideological sophisms, passed it by only two votes.

Anytime the PLC bench combines its votes with the handful of legislators who have remained loyal to Bolaños, it can push through any regular law, CAFTA included. The FSLN, which was slow to reflect on this trade agreement and instead opted for either silence or rhetoric for a long time, now opposes its approval. As the August parliamentary recess drew near, the PLC bench’s internal musings revolved around CAFTA: should they move away from the FSLN now or hang on to this juicy bargaining chip for a while longer? Putting a political price on their votes is common practice with all legislators anywhere in the world. Perhaps the distinguishing features in Nicaragua are that a principled vote is a rarity and that one seldom trades one’s vote for another piece of legislation; the concerns are usually crasser.

We’ll eventually climb on board

Does it make sense to ratify? Once the United States, Honduras, El Salvador and Guatemala approve DR-CAFTA, there’s not much sense in Nicaragua holding out unless it determines never to ratify… or holds off to make room for some late-coming investors in the benefited sectors of production. Approving the free trade agreement now represents clear backing for the economic groups linked to the Bolaños government. The immediate advantages that Nicaragua will obtain are concentrated in sugar and peanuts, crops dominated by the Pellas and BANPRO groups. It is also obvious that CAFTA will transform Nicaragua into one huge maquila, or sweatshop, which so far is virtually synonymous with “Chinese” in Nicaraguans’ minds (although they tend to be Korean and Taiwanese), but more and more pro-Bolaños national economic groups, again including the Pellas family, are investing in this cash cow of the future.

Nicaragua wasn’t prepared for CAFTA, and the 30-odd laws that must be revised to conform to the commitments assumed will not prepare it, even with the foot-dragging deadlines requested by the FSLN for their review and approval. Not even all the resources the Inter-American Development Bank and international cooperation will pump into the country in the coming years to help small and medium production adapt to the new CAFTA-esque ecosystem can halt the negative impacts.

Just for starters, Nicaragua has no public institutions capable of efficiently managing these resources, thus risking that they will be poorly spent or feed more corruption. And this in turn is because there has been neither the political will to transform that institutionality, except for the worse, or any national vision of the country we want to be much less any strategy for adapting CAFTA to such a shared national destiny. The prevailing principle in DR-CAFTA, as in the market in general, will be “every man for himself.”

“Drink your bitter tears”

Garza arrived in Nicaragua only days after the July 19 celebration of the 1979 revolution. In recent years, this event has increasingly revolved around the figure of Daniel Ortega, and its political content has been replaced by “religious” characteristics. It now is a tradition and a rite that revolves around a “saint” who is loved, feared and depended upon and from whom one hopes for favors. It is at once an outing with all its trappings—tumult, partying, booze, friends—and an expression of personal and collective commitment on a symbolic date that evokes “transcendence.” In short, it contains all the components of a typical Nicaraguan religious procession.

As every year, some 150,000 people congregated in Managua to celebrate the 26th anniversary of the FSLN-led insurrection that brought down the Somocista dictatorship. This year’s slogan was: “The FSLN is Nicaragua, buddy!”—a creation of his wife, Rosario Murillo. As last year, she presided over the event, which consisted only of dancing, folkloric songs and a couple of speeches. Despite what Nicaraguan political scientist Andrés Perez Baltodano refers to in this issue as Murillo’s “esoteric paganism,” Catholic symbols predominated in the stage décor: the profile of the old Cathedral and an altar to the Immaculate Conception. There were no songs from the insurrection or the revolution, perhaps because nearly all were composed by the Mejía Godoy brothers, who continue to describe themselves as revolutionary but are now critical of the FSLN.

Seven men sat center stage: National Convergence representative Agustín Jarquín; YATAMA chief Brooklyn Rivera; Stedman Fagoth, who, like Rivera, led an armed indigenous organization against the Sandi-nista government in the 1980s; the “governor” of the RAAN, also a YATAMA member; PLC legislator, former contra chief and Alemán’s godfather Jaime Morales Carazo; priest Eddy Montenegro; and a priest representing Archbishop Brenes who wore a black cassock and delivered a homily. Jarquín and Ortega gave the only two speeches, in which the single novelty was Ortega’s eight critical allusions to the anti-pact marches held in Managua on June 16 with 25,000 people and Granada on July 17 with 8,000. Ortega warned that these marches were polarizing the country and “stirring up class hatred.”

Despite this involution from politics to religiosity, such a massive concentration of people each year continues to spark fear deep in the bowels of Ortega’s adversaries. Will he win this time? Ortega took pleasure in evoking such a thought this pre-electoral year: “They’ll have to drink their bitter tears when we win,” he warned.

Garza’s maneuvers have included an anti-pact economic counteroffensive both to dissipate the fears of an FSLN victory and to lure the PLC back into the governmental fold. The World Bank released important loans it had frozen due to the institutional crisis and announced that it will back the Bolaños government throughout the electoral year. In addition, Nicaragua made it onto the Millennium Account—a Bush invention for very poor countries that fight corruption—which will bring US$175 million into the public treasury in the next five years. For its part, the IMF continued to demonstrate extreme flexibility regarding the conditions and deadlines that must be met before signing a new agreement.

The central “business”

Garza came fundamentally to talk to Arnoldo Alemán, to reach an understanding with him, because it’s the only way to get the Gordian knot untied for good. And Garza has a lot of negotiating chips. The US government knows that in addition to embezzling public resources, Alemán laundered part of the money through US banks. A case, in fact, is pending against him in the United States, which Washington has been using to pressure him. A US Justice Department investigation team visited Nicaragua after Garza had arrived to reach certain decisions on this affair. Another penal suit is pending against Alemán in Panama, since he did most of his laundering through Panamanian banks. This case is much further along, and the United States can influence its progress as well.

Arnoldo Alemán’s impunity and his consequent release are at the center of the Garza-Alemán negotiation. The United States is willing to bend the law, in which the quickest, most viable method would be for Alemán to go free under an amnesty, because it wouldn’t have to pass through any of Ortega’s obedient judges. All that would be needed to wrest away Ortega’s key to the calaboose are the votes of the PLC bench and the pro-Bolaños legislators in the National Assembly.

The cost of untying the knot

What will Garza demand in return for Alemán’s freedom and impunity? That he agree to withdraw completely from national politics? That he leave the country? That he renounce control of the PLC? That he accept some form of guaranteed primary elections in his party to make way for a presidential candidate who could defeat Ortega, such as Eduardo Montealegre? A primary also to select a list of legislative candidates that would not exclude politicians linked to the Bolaños business sector? In this case, what dose of “Arnoldismo” would the United States countenance on a Montealegre presidential ticket or the slates of PLC National Assembly candidates in exchange for Alemán agreeing to withdraw from center stage?

The government model designed by the Alemán-Ortega pact is based on transferring a lot more power to the National Assembly, in order to control the executive branch more effectively from there. The idea is that the winner doesn’t take all or the loser lose all. Since Garza couldn’t get enough votes to roll back the constitutional reforms that set all this up without more than a few Sandinista defectors, the future of this pact’s Gordian knot will depend on the composition of the National Assembly elected next year.

Ethical bankruptcy

The war on corruption Bolaños unleashed during his first year in office at least punished Alemán, the kingpin of the rampant corruption institutionalized during his government. The only thing remaining of that war is a vague longing for justice among the population, although its depth is a mystery. Once the transaction between Garza and Alemán is consummated, even that will be smashed to smithereens. Will anything be left of that “juridical insurrection” of 2002 that began to shake the two pillars—impunity and state-as-booty—of our political culture, that insurrection of ethical consequences welcomed so enthusiastically by special prosecutor Alberto Novoa, who, together with Judge Gertrudis Arias, dared to pursue the case against Alemán?

Evidence that this transaction is moving ahead can be found in the daily statements of PLC leaders who, with a bit of reserve in some cases and less in others, are scrambling to improve their relations with Bolaños and distance themselves from the pact with Ortega. These declarations reveal even more of the internal tensions and fissures that have been building after Alemán’s powerful influence was physically removed. It would seem that Garza’s swooping flights over the Liberal henhouse have sent the chickens scurrying in every which direction.

Ortega will be the most affected

Ortega will be the most affected by far if Garza reaches an agreement with Alemán, assuming Alemán doesn’t renege on it once freed. This would effectively put an end to Ortega’s pact strategy with Alemán, which has already exacted an exorbitant political price, and completely undermine his electoral strategy to retake the presidency and show he can govern well in peacetime, without a war.

With the Garza-Alemán deal cut, nothing would remain of Sandinista intellectual Orlando Núñez’s theoretical-political-historical justification of the pact. Despite evidence to the contrary, he has belatedly been presenting it as an anti-oligarchic and anti-imperialist strategy to depolarize the country and benefit the poorest.

Rectification is the only solution

Is there any way out for Ortega and the FSLN he controls? The only solution is rectification. And what would that mean for the FSLN at this point? It obviously wouldn’t mean raising the volume of anti-imperialist rhetoric denouncing Garza as leading a “conspiracy of the corrupt.” If Garza is yielding to Alemán’s corruption today, Ortega has been doing the same thing since 1998 and would not have hesitated to continue doing so if his pact had prevailed over this “conspiracy.”

If the polls and statistical calculations based on past elections are to be believed, Montealegre has the capacity to defeat Daniel Ortega on a unified anti-Sandinista platform. But Herty Lewites could defeat Monte-alegre, if he is allowed to run on a broad-based Sandinista platform that would pull in independent progressives. This means that the FSLN doesn’t have any shot at the government if it persists with Ortega, but could have if it went with Herty and recovered its traditional Sandinista values: national sovereignty and social justice.

So, to answer the question, rectification would mean reasserting its true Sandinista values and returning to the people, not only to get their votes but also to inspire them with a program that instead of pure rhetoric is possible, concrete and feasible, and actively involves them as respected participants. Even with DR-CAFTA in the region and the neoliberal avalanche in the world, there’s room to think and act in another way and to face this “single thinking” with leftist thinking and with quotas of sovereignty where it genuinely matters.

Rectification would also mean telling Nicaraguans the truth and providing a good example in one’s personal life. It would mean renouncing intimidation and vanguardism. It would mean reestablishing the energies that were scattered in these years of internal authoritarianism and inviting back all the decent and committed Sandi-nistas who left the party. It would mean opening the door to Lewites’ popularity and to those accompanying him in his effort, and inviting all those independents who are indignant about and pained by these long years of insensitivity and social injustice to help generate words, ideas, proposals and changes.

Utopian? Unquestionably. Even harder to build than it will be for Garza to undo the Gordian knot.

History speaks

Nearly 80 years ago, in 1927, Washington sent another US envoy, Henry L. Stimson, to “settle” the conflict between the main Nicaraguan political groups. The infamous Espino Negro Pact that he imposed led to the emergence of the immortal Sandino… and shortly afterward, Somocismo.

It is impossible to predict every potential outcome of Garza’s current meddling. What is certain, however, is that the desired stability of our institutions will never be achieved as long as the United States insists on creating balances of power that don’t reflect Nicaraguan society’s needs and aspirations and our political class insists on using Washington’s power to consolidate its own, living in constant expectation of envoys from the North. One can only speculate how Nicaragua’s backward, self-interested and picayune political class might have developed if the great Godfather to the North hadn’t consistently intervened in its own self-interest whenever that class’ childish squabbling threatened to get out of hand. Might they have eventually grown up and assumed their responsibilities like adults?

The overthrow of Somoza was an exceptional moment in which a large part of the Nicaraguan population put its life on the line in the belief that Sandinismo would be worth the risk. They were forced to continue doing so throughout the eighties because the United States insisted on fighting and perpetuating a war that should never have happened. Where might Nicaragua be today if the United States had not, as it so often does, violated the popular will of another country’s people to take matters into its own hands, again only for its own purposes? And when, it is also fair to ask, will the sleeping majorities of the United States finally wake up to what their government is doing in their name but not in their interest?

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