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  Number 292 | Noviembre 2005
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Alemán Still Controls the PLC and Will Hand Ortega the Victory

Reflections on the past, present and future of the Liberal Constitutionalist Party from an astute political analyst who belonged to the PLC for many years.

León Núñez

It’s possible to predict the passing of a comet three centuries before it arrives, and meteorologists can forecast the weather for the next four or five days, but in Nicaragua we can’t even predict or calculate what might happen in the next hour. Nicaragua has broken the Greek principle of contradiction, because everything can be and not be at the same time. The politicians’ accumulation of lies is so big and the uncertainty produced by their actions so great—including the actions of people I personally believe to be serious—that reflecting on national politics produces an enormous sense of frustration and confusion.

Logic has lost all value
and intelligence all prestige

Many people who supported President Bolaños have felt frustrated by the approval of the Framework Law. Bolaños made such a fuss about the constitutional reforms born of the pact between Alemán and Ortega, basing his opposition on principle and insisting that he would never agree to them, only suddenly to accept them as long as they aren’t applied until January 2007. So what happened to all his words? It doesn’t make sense. And what about the people, myself included, who repeated what he was saying? We were left dangling in the air... I’ve said that Bolaños’ government needed another three secretariats: the Secretariat of Humility, because there’s an enormous arrogance among its officials; the Secretariat of Judicial Coherence; and the Secretariat of Political Gymnastics, to teach it not to act so stiffly, to move its waist and legs a little without losing its balance. And now, following the Framework Law, we could also do with a Truth Secretariat.

We shouldn’t be surprised when politicians and legislators change their position in a matter of minutes on television. When we listen to them, we should consider that what they’re saying is a lie. And if we give them the benefit of the doubt, only time will tell if what they said was true or not. In normal societies, despite the fact that politics is always divorced from morality, political analysts work with more or less stable or logical elements, but in Nicaragua logic has lost all value and intelligence all prestige.

The history of the PLC:
The Somoza and Sandinista Regimes

Let’s look at the history of the Constitutionalist Liberal Party (PLC). In 1969, when “re-election symptoms” started to be seen in Anastasio Somoza Debayle, his education minister and relative Ramiro Sacasa Guerrero tenaciously opposed the idea and started to organize the Constitutionalist Liberal Movement (MLC) within Somoza’s Nationalist Liberal Party (PLN). Somoza dismissed him from his post. Ramiro Sacasa’s movement was founded by a dozen people and didn’t really do anything; it remained a small group of well-intentioned people. Maybe it never developed any further because the armed option already introduced by the FSLN was more attractive to Nicaraguans. The MLC proposed a civic fight against Somoza, but it was impossible to defeat the Somoza dictatorship civically.

The MLC subsequently obtained a seat on the Council of State set up after the FSLN’s triumph. But the FSLN took it away arguing the movement’s lack of representation. Soon after, Ramiro Sacasa Guerrero died in a car crash. The MLC became the Constitutionalist Liberal Party in 1983 and once again obtained a seat on the Council of State, represented by current Public Prosecutor Julio Centeno. The PLC didn’t participate in the 1984 elections, opting to abstain along with the Social Christian and Social Democratic parties. By that time the three parties had formed the Nicaraguan Democratic Party, which was later named after Ramiro Sacasa Guerrero. The PLC was a minimal expression opposed to the FSLN, although it avoided confrontations and was only interested in survival. In 1988, when a political deal began to look likely as a way of bringing the war to an end, the PLC joined the National Opposition Front (UNO), the political coalition of 14 parties—almost all of those in the country that opposed the FSLN—that won the 1990 elections.

Alemán and the growth of the PLC

The party was still miniscule, but that would soon change due to the astuteness of one of its main representatives, Arnoldo Alemán. Alemán was elected to the Managua Municipal Council in 1990. Direct mayoral elections had not yet been instituted; at that time it fell to the newly-elected Municipal Council to select the mayor from among its members. It had already been agreed that the councilors would choose Agustín Jarquín, but Alemán jumped the gun with a series of dodgy maneuvers and got himself elected instead. That’s where Alemán’s leadership started, and with it the growth of the PLC. Alemán is a very crafty politician and using public money from the capital’s municipal coffers, he started traveling throughout Nicaragua, town by town, district by district. It’s public knowledge that he creamed off millions for his political activities.

When the Sandinista revolution triumphed in Nicaragua, thousands of Liberals from the middle strata upwards went into exile, myself included. Those who stayed and didn’t die or end up in jail lived almost clandestinely, like timid armadillos. They didn’t speak out; they just tried to survive. But in 1990, when UNO won the elections, we all came back. Some 300,000 of us returned to Nicaragua. In that setting, Alemán didn’t have to do any political campaigning when he’d arrive at some town. He just had to turn up and ask, “Who were the Liberal Party leaders here?” and they identified themselves: the president, the activists, the at-large members… The Liberal Party had a lot of people and Alemán started to get hold of them and use them to organize the PLC’s local and even rural district leaderships. What did he do during those visits? He held huge pig-outs, with liquor, jokes, bear hugs and money… And he let people know they didn’t have to be afraid: “We have to tell people we’re proud to be Liberals!” He filled those Liberals with enthusiasm.

With this ant-like work all over Nicaragua, even in the Caribbean coast, and using Managua government money, he organized or bought a leadership that turned the PLC into the biggest party in Nicaragua. That party led him to victory in the 1996 presidential elections, despite the fact that he was accused of misappropriating and/or squandered enormous amounts of public money. Absolutely everybody knew it, but most people shrugged it off arguing that all politicians are corrupt but he at least gets things done. The polarization between Sandinistas and anti-Sandinistas together with memories of the war and the FSLN’s repression—those same faces were still in charge of the party—made Alemán’s visceral anti-Sandinsta banner very powerful, allowing him to take the presidency.

Power, money, corruption and the pact

Arnoldo Alemán is nothing if not very skillful, and contrary to what was expected, he quickly agreed to a “truce” with Daniel Ortega when the FSLN tested him out for the first time. That truce was to last throughout his administration. There was total peace between the FSLN and Alemán. How did both men operate in it? With a “give and take” formula; there was always some kind of exchange, some kind of deal. Alemán did not exclude Sandinista investors from the state-owned businesses that had begun to be privatized during the Chamorro government. This give and take culminated in the pact with Ortega, in which Alemán ensured himself a life-time post as non-elected legislator when he finished his presidential term and Ortega assured himself the chance of being elected with just 35% of the presidential vote as long as the second placed candidate was at least 5% behind him.

In addition to the economic share-out during those years, the bank system was also pillaged. This had started during the Chamorro years, when an average of US$50 million was stolen from the state bank (BANIC) every year. And it continued under Alemán, when BANIC, the Nicaraguan Investment Fund (FNI) and the Banco Popular were also pillaged. Anti-Sandinistas and pro-Ortega Sandinistas alike cleaned out the country.

Alemán was perfectly aware of the power that money gave him. There seems to have come a point at which he lost his head and started to appropriate public money too brazenly. I have publicly stated—and I’ve also said it in the presidency—that the Nicaraguan people should have been told how the $50-54 million Taiwan donation was divvied up. But the Bolaños government has never wanted to explain it. All of the Alemán officials, some of whom are currently in the Bolaños administration, received backhanders. If a magistrate earned $3,000, Alemán slipped him another $7,000 under the table, always in cash. Presidential Minister Antonio Lacayo had already used this system during the Chamorro government to keep public officials under his control. Alemán kept it up and also used it as a way to humiliate his officials, because a minister would come to pick up his $7,000 and sometimes he only received $4,000. “Those are Alemán’s instructions” he would be told; so the minister had to go and beg Alemán. That’s how he kept them; it’s public knowledge. Alemán also topped up legislators’ salaries and literally bought new ones over to his side with money, privileges and illegal benefits, so they would immediately vote for all the laws he sent to the National Assembly. He lobbied them, spent time eating with them, drinking with them. Enrique Bolaños, on the other hand, just sends them the laws. He doesn’t lobby them at all, he just tells them that he’s right and they have to do the right thing. But Nicaraguan politicians are used to asking “What’s in it for me?” when someone asks something of them.

It’s hard to fight corruption
in a totally corrupt country

Today, all politicians are on the make. The only thing they talk about, the only strategies they develop and tactics they deploy are aimed at ensuring they keep their post in the next government. The most important thing for them is to make a living without having to work. There’s a diplomatic reception in the evening, some official holiday every day of the week, and there’s always some congress, seminar or forum. They go to all these events, so how much time is left for working? The politicians live off the national budget and underhanded deals, asking for handouts from embassies, taking official trips… All of this has left Nicaragua in a dramatic situation: we’re the second poorest country in the Americas after Haiti, living off international charity, accustomed to acting like professional beggars.

Why doesn’t Bolaños reveal how the Taiwan Donation was spent? Hundreds of people who were neither legislators nor officials in the Alemán government also turned up at Alemán’s office to receive monthly cash payments. Why doesn’t the President denounce the 13-14,000 tax-free imported cars Alemán gave away to people during his five-year term? Why doesn’t he mention all the people who benefited from that scam? Over 300 people also bought cars with state credit notes during the Alemán government; they just went to the company and received a car in their name and it didn’t cost them a penny. One of the jurors that absolved Byron Jerez in one of the cases against him for buying vehicles with credit notes, asked “How can we condemn him if over 300 people did the same?” Who are those people? I know who some of them are, but it isn’t public knowledge.

It has been difficult for Bolaños to wage a frontal war against corruption in a country that is almost completely corrupt. He just chose the main symbol of that corruption: Arnoldo Alemán. The President has a very good image abroad because he won free and fair elections, because he respects public freedom and there has been no repression in the country; because compared with all previous administrations his has been honest; and because he’s personally an honest man who wouldn’t steal a penny.

There’s no democracy without
internal party democracy

When Alemán took over the PLC leadership, he personally decided who would be in each and every party post. Later, in the presidency, he decided each and every government post. He’d arrive in my home department of Chontales, for example, and say, “Let’s not complicate things, because I’m in a hurry. You’re the tax administrator, you’re going for legislator, you’re the PLC convention delegate, you’re this, you’re that and you’re the other…” He did the same in each town and rural district. When I started writing that the party had to democratize itself internally, Alemán got annoyed and told me, “This party cost me a lot; I made it. Do you think I’m going to hand it over? Are you trying to take away my authority? Don’t continue with this campaign.” So I said to him, “You saw what happened to the Liberal Party when it hitched its wagon to Somoza’s star. You should retire when your presidential term is up and let the party democratize.” To which he replied, “If I do that, it will disintegrate and the FSLN will take power.” I insisted that we Liberals should not be blindly obedient to Arnoldo Alemán, but he acted like a dictator and finally ordered me fired me from my job in the Central Bank. I later resigned as delegate to the PLC convention and from the party.

There can be no democracy in any country if there’s no democracy in the political parties. To democratize the parties, the parliamentary candidates in each department have to be elected through internal party elections with a secret vote. The same should be true for candidates for the top public offices. Candidates should organize their own primary campaign structure, finance their campaign and fight to get elected so that when they win the candidacy and ultimately the post itself, they will feel they really won it and weren’t selected by someone they then have to be loyal to, because no one will have put them there. There are lawmakers who say “I’m here on my own merit.” And some Supreme Court justices and electoral branch magistrates refer to “what this post has cost me,” to their “professional experience” and their “merits.” But in each and every one of these cases it has been the magic finger of Arnoldo Alemán or Daniel Ortega that selected them for the post.

Why do PLC activists remain loyal to Alemán?

When Enrique Bolaños won the elections in 2001, Alemán’s influence was decisive. But they immediately fell out, because Alemán wanted to continue being number one and Enrique Bolaños isn’t an easy man. Following the first pact with Ortega, Alemán took his life-time seat as a legislator and got himself elected president of the National Assembly, from where he intended to govern the country with Bolaños acting as a small-time government administrator. This caused a serious confrontation. Bolaños started investigating all of Alemán’s shady dealings and promoted a “fight against corruption,” which turned out to be a fight against Alemán. To get Alemán stripped of his immunity and into jail, Bolaños allied with the FSLN and entered an intimate alliance with Daniel Ortega; so intimate in fact that they even used to embrace and called each other “brother.”

When Alemán was finally tried at the end of 2003 and sentenced to 20 years imprisonment for money laundering, everyone—myself included—believed that the PLC bench in the National Assembly would fall apart. But it didn’t happen. The 40-odd legislators did not break up; they continued supporting and defending Alemán. Why? One explanation is the “smear theory” described by President Fox’s former Foreign Affairs Minister Jorge Castañeda in the famous book La herencia (The Inheritance).” According to this theory, when the PRI ran Mexico, the President of the day handpicked his successor based on all the terrible things he knew he had done because it guaranteed his own impunity. They protected each other’s back. A stained PLC legislator can’t go against Alemán, because Alemán will immediately spill the beans about him.

For those not compromised, another explanation is that they’re acting out of gratitude, which is very common in Nicaragua. “I’ve got Alemán to thank for everything I am today”; “I’m grateful to Alemán for that open heart operation paid for by the presidency, so how can I desert him?” It’s a very important factor in explaining loyalty. And another one that’s just as important is that all of today’s legislators know they won’t be re-elected or hold any other post if they don’t support Alemán. As most of them want to be re-elected, Alemán remains in a strong position, controlling not only the PLC bench but also all of the party structures, which for over a decade had him to thank for all the money they received, first from the Managua mayor’s office and then from the presidency. The Americans have tried everything, even denying US visas to Alemán loyalists. But not even the biggest power on the face of the Earth has been able to convince those 40-odd legislators; instead it turned them into anti-imperialists! The legislators and PLC structures have remained loyal to Alemán, but the Liberal masses, the great Liberal rank and file, have begun to crumble as Eduardo Montealegre has started to make his move.

How and why the PLC will help
Ortega win the presidency

I believe the PLC is going to help Daniel Ortega win the coming elections, albeit in the implicit, concealed ways employed in politics. Given that there’s no political logic to analyzing politics in this country, I’ve based this opinion on the perfectly consistent line I’ve observed in Alemán’s behavior towards Ortega.

Time has shown that the judicial branch is in Daniel Ortega’s hands. And everyone living in Nicaragua is aware that Arnoldo Alemán is in his El Chile hacienda or in a private wing of the Military Hospital or free to roam Managua’s streets on parole because Ortega gave the nod to the Sandinista judge on Alemán’s case, even at political cost to Ortega. Alemán has already proved his gratitude by handing Daniel Ortega half of all of the state branches. All of them. And not only for a determined length of time, but apparently for life. In exchange for what? In exchange for not being in the La Modelo prison. If Alemán doesn’t support Ortega or plays some dirty trick on him, he’s off to La Modelo to serve his 20 years. But if he behaves well, does everything he’s promised—clandestine support for Daniel Ortega to win the presidency apparently being his last obligation—then on November 7, 2006, the charges against him will be definitively dropped by the Managua Appeals Court, where the case against him for money laundering is lodged.

What form will this concealed, implicit support take? We’ve already seen it at work in the 2004 elections for mayor of Managua. The PLC candidate designated by Alemán was Pedro Joaquín Chamorro, who was warned by some not to accept the candidacy because the PLC structures wouldn’t support him. If the PLC had supported him, I believe he would have won. But none of the activists, the convention delegates, the PLC grassroots leaders in Managua did anything to help him. I turned up at a meeting of PLC convention delegates and they were openly against Pedro Joaquín, saying that no activist should do anything to support him because he was going to betray the PLC, because he’d be worse than Enrique Bolaños! He didn’t even appear in the TV propaganda; instead Francisco Aguirre Sacasa asked people to vote for all of the PLC mayors. In fact, there was no propaganda at all for Pedro Joaquín. In other words, Alemán honored his word to Daniel Ortega, helping Nicho Marenco to take the mayor’s office. I believe this is going to be repeated in the presidential elections; the PLC presidential candidate chosen by Arnoldo Alemán is going to be dealt with the same way Pedro Joaquín was in the local elections.

This will also be aided by the PLC’s lack of resources. The PLC’s economic situation is very dramatic. It no longer has a big hand that can dip into the till. Where will it get the resources to maintain all of its party machinery and finance all its campaigns in the coming years? If Alemán currently has $20, $30 or $40 million stashed away somewhere, he’s not going to invest it in a million-dollar campaign. I just don’t believe he’s going to let himself live on a shoestring. He might conceivably use the money to buy his freedom rather than earning it through the pact with Ortega. This precarious situation in the PLC is starting to be noted in many places. I see it in Chontales. They don’t even have enough money to travel. They used to be permanently on the move campaigning, holding meetings in neighborhoods, going to rural districts, buying a cow and gathering 500 local people to eat and talk about the Liberal Party. But that’s not happening anymore. Meanwhile, the FSLN is going to have no shortage of money for its campaign.

A massive electoral observation operation is expected for the next elections. It is being encouraged by Daniel Ortega himself, who has already invited the Carter Center to come and start observing. If Ortega doesn’t win the elections freely, if he doesn’t reach the required 35% on the first round with a difference of 5% over his nearest rival, if he loses by a slim margin, then René Herrera is going to step in. Herrera is a very intelligent man named by Alemán to the Supreme Electoral Council with the mission of carrying out a subtle electoral fraud in Daniel Ortega’s favor. It won’t be a blatant, crude fraud; they’ll do it by challenging the votes cast in certain polling stations. And as all of the Supreme Electoral Council magistrates are loyal to either Alemán or Ortega, they will annul those stations so Ortega can win and be recognized by the PLC as the legitimate electoral victor. And Arnoldo Alemán will recognize him, because otherwise he will rot in La Modelo prison.

The Bolaños-Alemán animosity
plays into Ortega’s hands

I can’t see how this can possibly change. The United States can’t offer Alemán freedom. If it could, it would have done it by now, in return for his political retirement. The only person who could do it and disassociate him from Daniel Ortega is Enrique Bolaños, by ordering his legislators to vote for amnesty for Alemán together with the PLC bench. And once free, Alemán would face off against Ortega. But Bolaños hasn’t wanted to do it. Relations between him and Alemán are so bitter and so irreconcilable that he prefers to deal with Ortega, which is in effect what he does. And don’t believe that the two of them started talking again just before the Framework Law on September 11. They never stopped talking.

How can we understand Bolaños’ stubborn attitude, in which he’ll have nothing to do with Alemán but will work things out with Ortega, despite the fact that Ortega’s government confiscated his property and put him in jail in the eighties? What didn’t the Sandinistas do to him? But that didn’t play out on the personal level like now, with that hostile relation, that animosity with Alemán. Bolaños feels that Alemán is his enemy and he’ll never pardon everything Alemán tried to do to him.

People criticize me when I say that I don’t see how Daniel Ortega is going to lose the elections at this point —although who knows, I might see things differently tomorrow. The FSLN has an enormous party machinery. I’m from a very small town, Acoyapa, and I’m already starting to notice people around there who I’ve never seen before. Some tell me that all those people are former members of the Sandinista state security apparatus, that they’re controlling Nicaragua’s whole electoral grid, block by block, and have the capacity to do so. There are also Sandinista mayors who are starting to give out food and medicine to hungry people, to share out the famous AFA rations from the eighties (rice, beans, oil, sugar). On top of this, Daniel Ortega is the man in command here: he’s accommodating, knows how to change, defuses strikes, lifts power cuts, allows Enrique Bolaños to finish his term, reached an agreement with the Framework Law, accepted the approval of CAFTA... Even the United States might end up saying it can do business with this man!

All of this leads us to believe that it won’t be so easy for him to lose, although I also think that in totally free and transparent elections where there’s complete freedom and everybody has the same opportunities and resources to mobilize voters, the winner would be either Herty Lewites or Eduardo Montealegre. I really think that if they aren’t disqualified, one of the two of them will win if the elections are between four candidates—Lewites, Ortega, Alemán’s choice and Montealegre or Alvarado, the other possible Liberal challenger to Alemán’s choice—and if there’s real transparency; even if there is some fraud, because they can’t just annul a few stations if it’s not a close race.

At the very least, it would almost certainly go to a second round, a run-off between the two of them. What negotiations would there be in that second round? That would also depend on the interests defended by the top echelons of the two parties eliminated from the second round: Alemán’s PLC and Ortega’s FSLN.

Economic interests rule in
a country corrupted by money

Anything could happen. I don’t believe much in political loyalties. Napoleon’s minister Talleyrand said that loyalty is a question of dates. The Nicaraguan political parties have become institutions that defend economic interests. To understand what’s happening in the country, you have to understand how the interests of traditional capitalists are interwoven with those of Sandinista capitalists. Sandinistas and anti-Sandinistas are partners in very strong businesses, and they get along very nicely thank you. They share projects, lands, urbanization developments and reap fabulous profits… and everybody ends up happy. In this country, economic interests are more important than any political ideology. In meetings in Managua, in embassies, in official parties, in hotel receptions, they exchange information on investments; they talk business. You shouldn’t believe that the business sector is vehemently anti-Sandinista, because there’s a strange, implicit alliance between the big capital of those close to Daniel Ortega and big traditional Nicaraguan capital. They meet, influence laws to protect their interests, mutually defend each other’s interests. There’s currently a tremendous voracity for money in Nicaragua. Everybody wants to become a millionaire overnight. And everybody wants to become an “aristocrat” to hobnob with the Nicaraguan “nobility.” It’s sad, but money is corrupting this country too much.

León Núñez is a Nicaraguan lawyer, political analyst and writer.

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