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  Number 292 | Noviembre 2005
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The Hands that Rock... Just About Everything

The Framework Law hammered out by Daniel Ortega and Enrique Bolaños bolstered Ortega, gave Bolaños breathing room and put the PLC on the defensive. This abrupt “end” to the crisis augurs new shifts in the scenario, but it’s not yet clear which hands will determine its course. And while Hurricane Beta made its spin through the area this month, Nicaragua spun even closer to the North by approving CAFTA.

Nitlápan-Envío team

On October 10, as the Central American Free Trade Agreement with the United States was being debated in the National Assembly, Daniel Ortega met privately with President Bolaños for over seven hours. At midday it was announced that CAFTA had finally been approved, without any of the street protests the FSLN had threatened or prior approval of the complementary laws it had insistently promised to shield Nicara-gua’s productive sectors that will be affected by the agreement.

A few hours later, President Bolaños appeared triumphantly at apres conference to announce the result of his extended conversation with Ortega. They had reached two major public agreements. The first was a “framework law” that would freeze until 2007 the constitutional reforms approved by the FSLN and PLC parliamentary benches earlier this year that shift powers from the executive to the legislative branch. The second was renewal of the dialogue among the three parties to the conflict—the government, the FSLN and the PLC—that had been shelved some months ago after the two parties ganged up on Bolaños. The FSLN also pledged to approve all the structural laws required as a condition for Nicaragua to remain within the International Monetary Fund program, which had been gathering dust all these months.

On October 19, after a brief theatrical resistance by the PLC, which was not openly a party to this agreement, the PLC and FSLN legislators approved the Framework Law for Stability and Governance in a near unanimous vote. In the following days, they also approved the first three structural laws: the reforms to the 2005 budget, the Tax Code and the Banking Law. At the same time, the tripartite dialogue was called back into session.

Put more succinctly, everything changed dramatically in just a few days. So whose hand is rocking this cradle?

The hand from “on high”

Perhaps infected by the erratic and voluble course of our political life and its protagonists, Hurricane Beta decided to shift its course as well. Unexpectedly, it headed for Nicaragua’s Caribbean coastline.

The hurricane period in the Caribbean has been particularly intense and devastating this year. With the season nearly over, Nicaragua was suddenly threatened by Beta, which gathered force until it finally reached category 3 as it made its way up the coast. Initially it was expected to hit Bluefields, in the south, but it continued north toward Cape Gracias a Dios on the border with Honduras. On the way, it seemed at one point to have its eye on Bilwi, the capital of the North Atlantic Autonomous Region, still known by some non-indigenous people as Puerto Cabezas. But during the night of Saturday October 29, it took a typically unpredictable Nicaraguan turn, and bore down on the mouth of the Río Grande, which is the dividing line between the north and south autonomous regions. Three municipalities took its full force: La Cruz de Río Grande, Pearl Lagoon and Tortuguero, which fortunately have far lower population densities than either Bilwi or Bluefields. That said, however, their communities and districts were devastated.

If Beta had continued up the coast it would probably have destroyed the port city of Bilwi, most of whose roughly 60,000 inhabitants live in flimsy old wood houses . Once the danger was past, and Bilwi’s residents were breathing deep sighs of relief, it was reported that the government had projected 10,000 deaths and 85% of the city destroyed. President Bolaños, as usual, took refuge in divine providence. “God decided to reroute the hurricane,” the President declared as the reports started coming in. “It was without doubt He on high, He who decides everything, who did us this favor.” The arbitrary and unjust God in whom our head of state—and much of our population—believes spared Bilwi but chose to batter the indigenous communities further to the south.

Beta’s telltale hand

The threat of starvation now hangs over the area Beta hit, since the cassava, plantain, banana, maize and bean crops were wiped out. Most of the fragile houses were either flattened, or at best lost their roofs. Schools, health centers and churches were so badly affected they had to close down. Latrines disappeared and wells were contaminated.

The damage to the marine ecosystem was also tragic: fish, coral banks and mangroves and the flora and fauna of those beautiful sites were severely affected, while over 240 square kilometers of timber forests were ruined. Later, Beta’s rains overflowed several of the north Caribbean region’s largest rivers, leaving tens of thousands of people in Prinzapolka, Waspan and other towns and villages incommunicado and with their crops and homes affected. Many of the same communities have already been battling starvation due to a plague of rats and worms that devoured crops several months ago.

The hand of Beta opened the doors of the Caribbean to those of us on the Pacific. For several days we were at last privy to at least some information about the eternally ignored and victimized Caribbean coast. Moreover, as Beta was deciding where to turn inland and on the day of the impact itself, President Bolaños and his officials treated us to an equally atypical display of effectiveness, put on for the media. The emergency committees and the army functioned with such coordination that it seemed for a moment as if we were living in a true nation.

Afterwards, though, as Beta dropped to a category 2 storm and its spectacular quality wore off, we returned to the reality of myopic thinking. Even before he had received an evaluation of the damage, the President declared that he would not seek international aid. His great solution was to send sheet metal to repair roofs, ignoring totally that these communities have lost their means of survival—animals, crops, seeds, canoes, outboards, nets, etc.—and face epidemics and severe hunger. The citizens on the coast deserve other words and actions.

The hand that asphyxiates

Beta revitalized the President even more. He continually appeared in the media as a take-charge man. If Bilwi sighed with relief on October 29, he had done so days before. The conflict over his refusal to accept the constitutional reforms, which had dragged out all year and exacted an incalculable cost, was now over. The episodes in this battle of the state branches had been colorful, but tragic and regrettable, providing an anthology of the backwardness of our national political culture.

On several previous occasions the FSLN and PLC had offered to suspend the constitutional reforms for the rest of Bolaños’ mandate in exchange for his recognition of their legality, but he had obstinately refused. His rejection was vehement and arrogant; he went into each battle armed with his characteristic stubbornness and with international support—mainly but not exclusively from the Central American region and the United States.

The PLC and the FSLN, on the other hand, defended the reforms as yet another expression of the “popular will” they claim to monopolize as the “majority parties.” Ignoring Bolaños’ opposition, they passed new laws and created new institutions derived from the reforms: the Superintendence of Public Services, the Institute of Urban and Rural Property, the Social Security Law and others. Now the Framework Law will send all of these reforms, laws and institutions into the deep freeze until January 20, 2007, ten days after the new President takes office. Then they will be thawed out and passed to the newly elected legislators, to become their headache.

While the reforms were passed with all due legal process, the framework law itself is unconstitutional, as it is an ordinary law that overrides the Constitution. All actors in the conflict, not to mention those of us forced to patiently follow it step by step, know that because we’ve been there before. In 1995, under relatively different political circumstances, a framework law was also hammered out between the legislative branch—at the time much more splintered than now—and the executive branch to postpone implementation of constitutional reforms pushed through by an alliance of small benches until after President Violeta Chamorro’s term. Before this new framework law was approved, there was some debate about the legal aspects of the Ortega-Bolaños agreement and some comparisons with its forerunner, but these important theoretical exercises could not hide the fact that it was a valid and necessary solution that gave respite to a country asphyxiated by the irresponsible hand of its own political class.

The international hand
that applauds

The weightiest reason for setting aside juridical debate and caving in to political expediency was the international position. The Framework Law was applauded by the financial institutions, European Union embassies, the US government and the Organization of American States (OAS), which had been acting as a mediator in the conflict.

Given the damage caused by the interminable conflict, they had been urging a truce, a parenthesis or something of the sort for some time, even conditioning financial disbursements on just such a juridical abomination. Under these circumstances, politics was imposed over law as commonly happens in Nicaragua’s history. The Framework Law officially freeze-framed the conflict until 2007.

What they bought
and what they sold

With this law President Bolaños bought time to run the last lap of his government in peace, calming the fears that had been haunting him for months: he will not be stripped of his immunity or have to stand trial for electoral crimes. Bolaños sold his “principles”—his fiery discourse against the “illegitimate” reforms and the “abominable pact of the caudillos”—in exchange for completing his term and almost fulfilling the US wish list: CAFTA approved, the IMF agreement renewed and most of the SAM-7 missiles destroyed. The only thing missing is reunification of the anti-Sandinista electoral bloc to prevent Daniel Ortega winning next year’s elections.

And what did Daniel Ortega buy? Above all, he bought legitimacy, presenting himself to the international community as the person who can ensure a truce, who can and will move the levers of power. And with that he hopes to sell himself as a palatable candidate, an image that has continually eluded him. It also gave him a new rhetorical element—“the pact is over”—to further improve that national image. “That so-called pact with the PLC has no further reason to exist,” Ortega declared. “The FSLN is going it alone.” In the confusion of contemporary Nicaraguan politics, some believed him. According to Sandinista Renovation Movement president Dora María Téllez, the FSLN “sized up Bolaños perfectly” with the Framework Law. Another of Ortega’s great achievements here was to separate out the institutional crisis from the electoral process in which he has concentrated all his energies. And what is Ortega still lacking after this skilled maneuver? Assurance that his strategy of going into the November 2006 elections against divided anti-Sandinista forces will not fall apart on him.

The Framework Law forced the PLC—which has constantly demonstrated that it will continue revolving around Alemán—to play a fast game of catch-up ball, buying government benevolence and selling the international community the image of banking on “governance.” After passionately opposing the Bolaños government, the PLC suddenly did a U-turn and became its ally: the PLC legislative bench pledged to support all the laws that Bolaños sends to the Assembly. And it went even further: as an “expression of good will,” it immediately pushed to reject the committee finding in favor of stripping Bolaños’ immunity. For all that, the PLC still needs the very thing it has sought all along: Alemán’s liberty, which it hopes to sell to the country and the international community as an essential step towards the “governance and stability” sought by the Framework Law. Will it also be a step towards unifying the anti-Sandinista electoral bloc?

And finally, there’s the OAS, whose attempts to mediate this conflict have been so frustrating and frustrated. According to José Miguel Insulza, its secretary general, the Framework Law achieved “a government stabilized until next year’s elections and an electoral process that is opening up under good auspices.” Will these good auspices mean the same for the OAS as they do for the United States?

Robert Zoellick’s meddling hand

When he announced the passage of the Framework Law on October 19, President Bolaños said that “a wide door of hope is opening for Nicaragua.” He began his message that night with his most polished and solemn providen-tialism: “Today, God has laid his hand on Nicaragua. We thank Him because he has helped us in that the National Assembly, in a historic session, has passed the Framework Law.” He then thanked the “heroic, bold and patriotic” decision of the legislators, who in his magical version of history were allegedly moved by the hand of their God.

What hand really rocked the cradle of the Framework Law? Given its style, its protagonists and its contents, what could be and in fact has been dubbed the Ortega-Bolaños pact was a cunning and intelligent tactical maneuver by Daniel Ortega on the strategic field tilled by the OAS ever since Bolaños called on it months ago to help him find a way out of an institutional conflict he was incapable of resolving alone.

In an October 23 interview with Carlos Fernando Chamorro on his Sunday evening news program “Esta Semana,” the OAS special envoy, former Argentine foreign minister Dante Caputo, admitted that obtaining the Framework Law had involved “hundreds of hours” talking to representatives of the three groups in conflict. Caputo mentioned Noel Ramírez (PLC), Samuel Santos (FSLN) and Ernesto Leal (government). He admitted that it “would have been excellent had the other party [the PLC] been present” in the agreement that led to the law and acknowledged it was not part of Alemán’s plans when the two met. Nonetheless, he said “the two [the government and Ortega] generated the critical mass, the political power necessary to produce a new element with the Framework Law.”

Caputo, an intelligent politician and able diplomat with a secular mentality, did not attribute anything to God’s hand. He did cautiously recognize, however, the impact of the hand of US Undersecretary of State Robert Zoellick, who had visited Managua some days earlier, in generating that “critical mass” and that “new element.”

In his well-honed arrogant style, Zoellick had hurled abuse at both Ortega, which was nothing new, and Alemán, in which the main novelty was his extremely harsh language and his inclusion of Alemán’s family. While he was at it, he laid out the US electoral objective in Nicaragua: the unification of the Liberals to produce an anti-pact and anti-Sandinista “third way.” According to Caputo, Zoellick “helped find the path in practice. It was a tough public message that expressed the clear positions of the United States and greatly facilitated our task.” Was it really the action of that powerful hand that finally rocked the cradle? And if so, why only now? This is hardly the first time in recent years that Washington has sent one of its bullying emissaries with the same impertinent message, which has previously had precisely the opposite effect. Is there still more to this than meets the eye?

The pact’s hand
and fingerprints

From OAS headquarters, José Miguel Insulza—who recognized his own failure in personally mediating in Nicaragua—commented that the Framework Law was a “crowning success” for his institution. While this law indeed called a truce regarding the constitutional reforms—one of the bitterest institutional conflicts provoked thus far by the Alemán-Ortega pact—the pact goes much deeper.

It continues to be destructively expressed in the previous constitutional reforms of 1999-2000, when Alemán was President. Those reforms increased the number of top-level posts in the Supreme Court, the Appeals Courts, the Supreme Electoral Council, the Comptroller General’s Office, the Public Prosecutor’s Office, the Human Rights Defense Attorney’s Office and the Superintendence of Banks, which the two caudillos then filled with people unflaggingly loyal to them. Not only did this drastically skew the impartial administration of these key governmental institutions, it also unnecessarily inflated the top levels of state bureaucracy, which meant an enormous new burden on the national budget.

The pact is also expressed with exclusionary vigor in the current Electoral Law, which forced the bipartite FSLN-PLC stamp onto all of the electoral structures, eliminated popular petition candidates and made political alliances extremely difficult. All of that remains intact, untouched by the Framework Law. The Alemán-Ortega pact has been incrusted in the national institutions for the past seven years, leaving heinous prints: all manner of arbitrariness, corruption and mafia-like murky deals.

The long arm of the pact

Making pacts has metamorphosed into a method and a philosophy in Nicaragua; the country has moved from pacts to “pactism” as a normal way of engaging in politics. Nicaragua’s historical development and politics are decided in all-embracing fashion by the main party bosses.

The essence of pactism is an arbitrariness generated by the way the two political bosses have instrumentalized the state institutions. If Daniel Ortega could announce the end of the pact, what’s to stop him from reporting to us tomorrow that it has been dusted off, reinstated and even extended? Thus, Ortega’s very announcement that it had ended demonstrates that “pactism” still prevails and that he is central to this perverse game.

The pact and pactism itself have permeated to the core of the FSLN’s own structures, converting its political mode into a crafty, sleazy one based on cashing in on government perks, rather than grassroots principles as befits a party of the Left. It is hard to imagine any real end to the pact without new constitutional reforms—perhaps through a Constituent Assembly or a referendum—that annul not only the reforms that triggered the most recent conflict, but also the previous ones hammered out during the Alemán government.

How much pluralism is needed in the National Assembly to prevent another ugly resurgence of Nicaragua’s never-ending power conflict? When are our political leaders going to begin looking for solutions to the profound problems of Nicaragua’s great majorities: the hungry, female heads of household, rural producers, emigrants, and those without jobs, opportunities or even hope? That is the greatest challenge in the upcoming electoral process.

“End” of pact;
start of “campaign”

In announcing the approval of the Framework Law, President Bolaños effectively kicked off the electoral campaign. In reality the race began in February, when Daniel Ortega announced that he would be the FSLN’s presidential candidate without an internal party primary, and launched the party machinery against any other Sandi-nista hopeful. Does the Framework Law now free up Bolaños’ government to get to work on its own electoral strategy? Since it has never stopped serving US interests, does this mean it’s now time to further the North’s electoral interests?

It was a victory for Ortega that the “stability and governance” purchased with the Framework Law included nothing that would wrest control of the electoral process from either him or the pact, but since the pact has never been a gentlemen’s agreement, no holds will be barred now that the electoral battle is underway. With Bolaños freed up from the institutional conflict and his own legal problem, will we soon witness an understanding between the executive branch and the PLC? Will Bolaños and Alemán become bedfellows again? Bolaños invited the pro-Alemán legislators to a dinner to celebrate “the new stage” ushered in by the Framework Law. The media coverage was a powerful collage of bear hugs, toasts and back-slapping laughter among people who only hours earlier had been deadly adversaries. Is this the prelude to a shift by the executive that could guarantee Ortega’s defeat in the elections? Isn’t this the perfect moment to bargain for an amnesty for Arnoldo Alemán?

Could Ortega’s strategy
escape his hands?

Daniel Ortega’s electoral strategy has two elements. One maintains the party’s organizational machinery, which still feeds off the efficiency, presence, tradition, mystique and nostalgia of the eighties, occasionally accompanied by strong pressure, extortion and intimidation. The other keeps the anti-Sandinista vote divided. An Ortega victory is very likely if he can see to it that the pro-Alemán and anti-Alemán Liberals and their respective allies go to the elections with two different presidential candidates.

Up to now, that division has been guaranteed by an Arnoldo Alemán arrested, accused, tried and convicted with a sentence that limits his political rights, then continually jerked around regarding his possible release. His vulnerable and uncertain future has triggered immeasurable political and emotional tensions in the Liberal ranks and in the anti-Sandinista population as a whole. The PLC’s loyalty to Alemán has poisoned relations between Alemán and Bolaños to extremes that many consider irreconcilable. Nothing could be more threatening to Ortega than a reconciliatory embrace between Bolaños and Alemán.

Can Ortega ensure that division by using his control of the courts to drag out the decision on Alemán’s freedom until after the elections? Or would it be better to let him go free right before the elections? It is a proven fact that Alemán is a divisive factor in the Liberal ranks, but might his full release contribute to the unification that the United States is so determined to forge?

Alemán’s freedom is what could most alter the new, more relaxed political scene ushered in by the Framework Law. While Ortega controls the court decision that could theoretically exonerate Alemán from all charges, a “reconciliation” between the PLC and Bolaños could create a National Assembly majority to free him via an amnesty. What would Bolaños exact from him in return? Presumably Alemán’s pledge to cede his PLC leadership and abandon the idea of launching himself as a presidential candidate, instead reuniting the anti-Sandinista bloc around a more widely acceptable choice, although retaining influence on the ticket and in the choice of legislative candidates. Alemán is skilled enough to successfully carry out his part of the bargain, but would Bolaños and the United States accept a free Alemán still clinging on to some of his influence?

Alemán would presumably prefer to be freed by an appeals court declaration of a mistrial, that there was no hard and fast evidence against him. But an amnesty, which is a political pardon and thus not quite as “clean,” would permit him to come out looking like the victim of a political plot and Bolaños like a political reconciler, assuming everyone forgets that Bolaños plotted against him in the first place.

The hand that forgives

Now that CAFTA is approved, the US priority in Nicaragua will be to ensure Ortega’s electoral defeat. The conditions appear to be in place. Enrique Bolaños is breathing more easily and people from APRE, the failed anti-pact party he invented in 2004, are now negotiating an electoral alliance that would unify the so-called “democratic forces” (read anti-Sandinistas and non-Sandinistas) around the PLC’s proven machinery.

Alemán’s family and most faithful followers have insisted for months that he will be freed of all charges “in due time.” For the PLC and for the President, that time could be now: Christmastime, time for “love and forgiveness.” Or would Holy Week be more appropriate: also a time of “pardon and reconciliation” that conveniently coincides with the time for choosing the PLC’s presidential candidate?

As religion in Nicaragua has the magical power to transmute the crimes of the powerful into sins, so they don’t have to go to prison like ordinary criminals but can be pardoned as sinners, this would be the perfect solution, one that brings in the “hand of God” to boot. This idea has been promoted by Cardinal Obando, a number of Catholic bishops and clergy and evangelical pastors ever since Alemán was first collared by the long arm of the law. “Alemán is a man who pardons and knows how to pardon,” commented the Cardinal on his recent return from Rome, concluding that he who pardons deserves to be pardoned. Such language is echoed in the PLC’s justification and presentation of the motives for its amnesty bill: “Pardon and forgetfulness are required for the supposed errors he allegedly committed in the performance of his public and private functions.”

The hand that
erases everything

On October 27, the PLC introduced an amnesty bill into the Nationally Assembly that would exonerate all public officials who allegedly committed any type of crime against public goods, thus covering Bolaños and his cohorts as well as Alemán, as it included electoral crimes. And as the amnesty stretches as far back as March 14, 1990, weeks after the FSLN lost the elections and the Sandinista “piñata” of state goods got underway, any Sandinista state corruption would also be pardoned. In short, it is a gigantic wiping clean of the slate, an affront to the nation. The first reaction of US Ambassador Paul Trivelli was to declare that such a law would be “a mockery of 15 years of democracy in Nicaragua.” Exactly which modifications would make it not a mockery for Mr. Trivelli?

If Alemán were released under an amnesty in exchange for a pledge to unify the Liberals and offer them the PLC machinery, it would also release him from Ortega’s grip and shatter the latter’s electoral strategy. In this scenario, Ortega would be even more tempted to use some “legal” maneuver to eliminate Herty Lewites from the electoral race in hope of recovering the votes of all the Sandinistas attracted by the former Managua mayor’s candidacy. And, of course, the anti-FSLN forces would be even more interested in seeing Lewites run as this would take votes away from Ortega and weaken his power. Such a maneuver would turn the Supreme Electoral Council into the next battlefield as its deciding body is almost evenly split between loyalists of Ortega and Alemán thanks to their pact.

It goes without saying that the powerful hand of the United States is crafting a scenario that won’t land Ortega in the presidency. “Losing does not figure on my horizon,” said Daniel Ortega early in November. Could that explain the rumor that he’ll chose not to run for President in the end?

Sandinista hands

Daniel Ortega and the others in the FSLN who have destroyed all the political and ethical principles of a party that once fought for justice and sovereignty aren’t interested in the presidency, but in power. And the power they have already accumulated thanks to the pact will last them for a long time, particularly if they can win a few more legislative seats in the next elections.

The only ones who can erode Daniel Ortega’s real power are the Sandinistas that are beginning to swarm around Herty Lewites. The Sandinista values of social justice and national sovereignty have never been more urgent and necessary for Nicaragua, and the FSLN no longer represents that alternative.

More than ever, Nicaragua needs Sandinistas who can demonstrate that social justice and national sovereignty are essential components of both democracy and development. Never has it been so urgent to inject principles and values into Nicaraguan politics that allow us to dream collectively and act as a nation.

Former Environmental Minister
Warns of Nicaragua’s Vulnerability
Following Hurricane Beta’s incursion into Nicaragua, geographer and environmental expert Jaime Incer Barquero, the Chamorro government’s environment minister and a permanent voice in the wilderness, declared: “Nicaragua is in grave danger: every year the hurricanes increase their strength due to the effects of global warming, exposing thousands of people to flooding and landslides because the soils don’t have the same resistance to the constant strong rains. The effects of the hurricanes on Nicaragua are going to get continually worse as our territory becomes more vulnerable due to the increasing erosion of the soils without the forests to protect them. In addition, Nicaragua is behind the times on risk management and conservation issues. The different governments have lacked the will to stop actions such as uncontrolled deforestation. They don’t even stop the primitive practice of stubble burning practiced by peasants during the planting season. Our rulers believe that conservation is about people illegally selling little tropical birds. They don’t realize that it’s a question of survival.”

US Military Aid in Exchange for Destruction of SAM-7s?
In mid-October, following a meeting between Avil Ramírez, Nicaragua’s defense minister, and US Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, the US government announced that it would renew an estimated US$23 million in military aid to Nicaragua. The aid was suspended in March 2004 when the PLC and FSLN legislators pushed through an arms law that removed President Bolaños’ power to make decisions on military weaponry and specified a qualified vote of 60% of
the National Assembly to destroy the Soviet-made SAM-7 surface-to-air missiles acquired by the then-Sandinista Army in the eighties. The US has called for the destruction of these missiles, arguing that they could fall into terrorist hands and endanger air navigation. In 2003, President Bolaños ordered 1,000 of these missiles destroyed and the following year planned to destroy 651 more. The Army of Nicaragua has recommended that it retain some 400 (20% of the original total), and this finally seems to have been accepted by the United States, which is apparently satisfied that they are well safeguarded in the army’s arsenals.

The Arms Law was just one more expression of the Ortega-Alemán pact to tie President Bolaños’ hands. In September, seeking to improve their party’s image with the United States, the PLC legislators announced that they would reform the Arms Law with respect to the qualified vote, and they are now supporting the destruction of the SAM-7s.

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