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  Number 297 | Abril 2006
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Nicaragua

75 Days to Jockey for Position

Once José Rizo, Bolaños’ erstwhile Vice President, had been selected as the PLC’s presidential candidate, the negotiating of alliances and running mates began in earnest, as did the jockeying for position on the different parties’ legislative slates. This two-and-a-half month period before all candidates must be registered will be an intense—and surely tense—period of horse trading.

Nitlápan-Envío team

One major slot remained to be filled on the presidential ballot for the November 5 general elections. With the selection of José Rizo as the Constitutionalist Liberal Party (PLC) candidate on April 2, the line-up is now complete and the predicting can begin.

We will now witness 75 days of intense and surely tense negotiations as each party attempts to create or consolidate its electoral alliances and horse trade its slots for vice presidential and legislative candidates. The alliances must be registered by May 11 and the candidates by May 31, according to the electoral calendar recently announced by the Supreme Electoral Council (CSE). The CSE then has until June 19 to vet the submissions and publish the official lists, revealing what if any vetos it has imposed for political or other, presumably more legitimate reasons.

Meanwhile, it’s time to get down to business and “rizar el rizo,” a linguistic spin defined in María Moliner’s indispensable dictionary as: “aerial acrobatics consisting of a plane executing one or more vertical circles in the air.” Quite apart from being a convenient play on the PLC candidate’s name, it’s a fit description of the competitive acrobatics the pretenders will have to perform until all ballot slots have been filled.

CAFTA comes into force

These acrobatics will probably escape the notice of the current government. In its final months, it is still focused only on the North, indifferent to what’s happening at home.

The Central American Free Trade Agreement (CAFTA) with the United States finally came into force in both Nicaragua and Honduras following the reform of a number of laws to reflect what was signed in the agreement, as required by the United States. After a long silence, followed by months of empty rhetorical railing against the agreement followed by weeks of equally empty promises of laws to shield producers and other sectors that will be affected by CAFTA, the FSLN’s 38-seat legislative bench unflinchingly voted in favor of all the legislation the United States wanted.

The reforms were approved in two separate batches in March, and not without tension when the PLC bench tried to trade its approval of the first batch for passage of an amnesty decree to free its imprisoned political boss, Arnoldo Alemán. When all was said and done, the Law of Authors’ and Related Rights; the Law to Protect Program-Bearing Satellite Signals; the Law of Patents for Inventions, Utility Models and Industrial Designs; the Law on Trademarks and other Distinctive Signs and the Special Law on Crimes against International Trade or Investment were in place by March 21. The mere titles are a pretty good give-away on which side of Nicaragua’s border they favor.

CAFTA’s expected impact on the region sparked widespread controversy that has yet to die down. But only in Costa Rica has the issue been given the time and seriousness it merits, and for that reason it still hasn’t been approved there. Nicaragua’s government, in contrast, offered no pause for doubts or room for nuances; it repeatedly assures us that the trade agreement will be the “bridge to progress.” To drive this point home, President Enrique Bolaños organized a highly unusual “popular fiesta” in the street in front of the presidential offices on the night of March 24 to welcome CAFTA, as Nicaragua’s official language always calls it, even though the acronym corresponds to its English title. Against a backdrop of colored balloons and a sky laced with fireworks, Bolaños, looking haggard and eager to pack his bags, kicked off the event by acclaiming that “unforgettable historic day,” then relinquished the stage to musical groups. The event, which cost $25,000, only attracted about a thousand “revelers.”

Triumphal pirouettes
for “free trade”

On April 1, Bolaños and US Ambassador Paul Trivelli went to the Managua airport to dispatch a shipment of 70,000 pounds of red beans, okra and zucchini to the United States—the first official export of products in the CAFTA framework. But it was a little like cutting the red tape on a casino that’s been unofficially raking in the bets for three years. That’s how long the financial group linked to the bank in which Nicaraguan Liberal Alliance (ALN) leader and presidential hopeful Eduardo Montealegre is a major stockholder has merrily been sending these very same products north.

This detail didn’t dampen Bolaños’ triumphalism. “A new chapter in national history is beginning today,” he effusively intoned. “In the future, Nicaraguans will have to refer to before CAFTA and after.” He yet again referred to the free trade agreement as a cornucopia of abundance from which will issue forth investments, jobs and even the end of poverty.

Surely, however, he and his top officials are familiar with the World Bank’s recent study, “DR-CAFTA: Challenges and Opportunities for Central America, 2005,” which demonstrates that the agreement will have only a very modest positive impact on Nicara-gua’s per-capita income and minimal effects on the reduction of poverty. More worrying still will be the negative consequences for the poorest rural households—which are the vast majority in Nicaragua—due to the reduction in prices foreseen for many of the basic foods peasant farmers struggle to produce, which must now compete with those that will flood in from the hugely subsidized US growers. Beyond the obscenity of labeling this free trade, does such a prognosis really merit such festivities and sense of victory?

To striking doctors:
“Take your gripe to Washington”

The physicians organized in Doctors for Salaries did not attend the CAFTA celebration because they were too busy trying to get the government to pay attention to their protest. They have been tenaciously demanding a decent salary ever since November, originally through the frustrated negotiations in which they have offered endless proposals and counterproposals, and increasingly with declarations, work stoppages and partial but ongoing strikes.

According to Oxfam International, the salary of Nicaraguan doctors in the public health system (between $200 and $500 a month depending on their specialty) barely tops that of their colleagues in Malawi, an African country with a per-capita income 80% lower than Nicaragua’s. Public sector doctors in Honduras, which has a per-capita income comparable to ours, earn nearly three times more than their Nicaraguan counterparts. Meanwhile, Nicaraguan nurses earn a maximum $100 a month.

“Go to Washington and negotiate your demands with the International Monetary Fund,” Treasury Minister Mario Arana told the doctors in February, fliply reflecting the Nicaraguan government’s indifference to the grave problems affecting the very population it supposedly represents.

Bolaños and his ministers are gambling on wearing down the doctors’ resolve by simply repeating that there are no funds for salary increases and that the IMF has imposed a public spending “ceiling.” What is sustaining the tragedy of a public health system without medicines, equipment and human capacity, however, is not a fixed limit on spending, but the government’s assignment of the resources at its disposal.

Lousy prioritizing of
the nation’s resources

In a study contrasting Nicaragua’s chances of meeting the United Nations Millennium Goals with the programs the IMF has set for our country, accepted without any reticence by the government, economist Adolfo Acevedo argues that increased tax revenue plus the money freed up from foreign debt payment thanks to the international HIPC Initiative finally provide Nicaragua enough funds to begin resolving the enormous problems that have accumulated in health and education over so many years.

“The challenge now,” Acevedo he argues, “is to thoroughly redefine national priorities,” starting with “the absolute priority assigned to payment on the domestic debt and to building the international monetary reserves in the Central Bank.” While he holds the government mainly responsible, he doesn’t let the IMF off the hook, since its documents always emphasize the need to “honor” what it calls the “sanctity” of credit contracts.

Is there any government desire to take up the challenge of “redefining priorities,” negotiating with the IMF with intelligence and dignity? The government officials’ indifference to the prolonged doctors’ strike and even such extravagant expressions as the CAFTA party suggest not.

A surprise announcement by Comp-troller Argüello Poessy on April 2 offered a glimmer of hope. He said the Comptroller General’s Office is studying possible illegalities in connection with the Negotiable Investment Certificates (CENIs) issued by the Central Bank to cover the debts of several banks that went under in 2000 due to fraudulent activities. Two other banks, Bancentro and Banpro, made a killing by buying up the CENIs, allegedly due in part to a suspicious revaluing of the collapsed banks’ portfolios. Argüello Poessy added that economist Néstor Avendaño, one of civil society’s strongest voices demanding renegotiation of the domestic debt, is assisting the study pro bono. Although everything the comptroller said is true, many fear his announcement is merely part of a campaign to undermine the Nicaraguan Liberal Alliance-Conservative Party (ALN-PC) grouping, which is challenging the PLC’s hegemony within the Liberal base. After all, Argüello Poessy is a pro-Alemán Liberal who turned a blind eye to the rampant corruption during the Alemán administration. The suspicion is that the study’s potentially damaging evidence could be used simply to force ALN-PC presidential candidate Eduardo Montealegre, who owns significant shares in Bancentro, and his ally, Conservative Party leader Mario Rapaccioli, a major stockholder in Banpro, into some political aerobatics to quash it. Is it mere coincidence that Argüello Poessy announced that the resolution containing the study’s findings would be issued prior to the November elections?

Meanwhile, back at
the electoral campaign…

While President Bolaños steadfastly continues to honor the IMF’s first commandment to “sanctify” the domestic debt, the electoral process is proceeding apace. It is pressured by the recent publishing of the electoral calendar, whose May 11 deadline for registering alliances doesn’t leave the parties much more time for horse trading.

Herty Lewites, the Sandinista challenger to FSLN leader Daniel Ortega’s presidential candidacy, has announced that he will run on the existing ballot slot of the Sandinista Renovation Movement (MRS), as his Herty 2006 Alliance did in the coast elections. This decision is ostensibly what led the small Christian Alternative party to pull out of the alliance, highlighting the problems the issue of registering himself as a candidate has generated for Lewites. Attempting to register the Herty 2006 Alliance independently would run a greater risk of the FSLN-dominated CSE finding some way to inhibit it on a technicality than will be the case if the already registered MRS files its alliance with his group. The downside is that the MRS, while still identified with Sandinismo despite its split with the FSLN in 1995, has little draw with grassroots Sandinistas outside of the big cities. The recent decision of the Democratic Left tendency inside the FSLN to back his movement should bolster its credibility among the Sandinista base, but this doesn’t resolve the other problem, which is that Lewites appeals to a much broader electorate than one strictly identified with Sandinismo by any acronym.

The all-important
legislative elections

So far no parties have revealed the names of any legislative candidates. What somersaults will be required of the candidates in each competing group? For example, how will the PLC candidates ensure voters that there will be no more corruption? How will those on the ALN-Conservative Party ticket genuinely attract the poor that wealthy banker Montealegre claims to represent? How will those on the FSLN ticket convince voters they are fresh faces not beholden to Daniel Ortega? And how will those on the MRS Alliance ticket attract voters beyond Sandinismo and inspire a determination for real change?

The election of National Assembly representatives has never been more important. If the MRS Alliance on the Sandinista side and the ALN-PC alliance on the anti-Sandinista side can break the combined monopoly of the PLC and FSLN benches, it could thwart further institutional and legal power-grabbing via ratification of the Ortega-Alemán pact and even begin to reverse the elements already in place.

The coast’s autonomy elections gave the PLC a smell of victory

The March 5 elections for autonomous government officials on the Caribbean coast were outrageously expensive—$50 a vote—and were the least autonomous since they were instituted in 1990, in the view of coast people truly committed to autonomy. Even the Coast Agenda negotiated over the past couple of years and finalized in December was ignored during the campaign.

The national political class saw those elections as nothing more than a dress rehearsal for the presidential ones, and in that context it offered a number of surprises large and small. Among the lesser surprises were that the predicted violence did not occur and the polls turned out not to be as reliable as thought.

ThePLC’s strong showing was the biggest surprise for most people, surely including the PLC’s own members. The party was expected to trail the FSLN as it did in the 2004 municipal elections given the party’s given its paltry campaign finances; the 20-year prison sentence being served by its caudillo leader, who could only send out pre-taped messages, the persistent criticisms of both party and leader by the Nicaraguan media and US official-dom, and Eduardo Montealegre’s very spendy campaign to pull votes away from his Liberal rivals.

On March 18, the CSE officially announced the 45 members elected to the Regional Councils of the North and South Autonomous Regions (RAAN and RAAS) for the next four years. While they differed slightly from the preliminary results announced right after the election, the PLC held its impressive lead, particularly in the RAAS, where it won 22 seats, to 11 for the FSLN and 6 each for the ALN and indigenous regional party Yatama. In the RAAN, the PLC and FSLN tied with 16 seats each and the regional indigenous party Yatama took all of the remaining 13. The original count had given the PLC two more seats there, but Yatama organized days of protests, including the occupation of buildings, blocking of highways and kidnapping of the Regional Electoral Council president to demand a seat it charged the PLC had “stolen” from it. The PLC lost the other seat to the FSLN.

On the gender front, only 4 of the new Council members in the RAAN are women (1 FSLN, 2 Yatama, 1 PLC), compared to 11 in the RAAS (3 FSLN, 1 Yatama, 4 PLC, 3 ALN).

The PLC’s victory in those elections, which was particularly strong in the coast’s rural zones, strengthened both the party and Alemán. It rekindled enthusiasm among the flagging ranks, improved the party’s position vis-à-vis the FSLN and demonstrated to national capital, the United States and the international community that it could yet guarantee the defeat of Daniel Ortega, that ghost of revolutions past who keeps them all on tenterhooks. The smell of victory in November explains some of the acrobatic hoops Alemán put his party through this past month.

Was Rizo elected or selected?

In light of the coast results, the PLC abandoned the idea of holding primary elections to select its presidential candidate from among seven aspirants, arguing lack of finances. Instead the 750 party delegates from all over the country would do the selecting at the party’s April 2 convention, just as they dutifully confirmed Alemán’s anointed candidate Enrique Bolaños in 2000.

But on March 22, Alemán shifted gears yet again, suddenly announcing a novel form of “primary” election to avoid any suspicion that he might exercise control over the convention delegates: they would vote simultaneously in 32 mini-conventions in the country’s 16 departments on March 31, and the winner would be ratified two days later during the national convention. It’s not clear why any doubters would be convinced that someone capable of organizing so many mini-meetings all over the country in little over a week wasn’t also capable of influencing their vote by remote control, but so be it.

The PLC’s “red diaper” baby

To no one’s surprise, José Rizo came out the winner with 63% of the tally in the mini-conventions and was duly ratified two days later. The clean-cut, kindly-looking, silver-haired Rizo had chosen the motto Urge Rizo (Rizo urgently needed) to accompany his picture on the small red posters his campaign workers had plastered everywhere.

A PLC founder and Bolaños’ Vice President until last November when he resigned as required of government officials planning to run for a new office, Rizo has said on various occasions that he was a “red-diaper” baby. (For US readers who may have heard that old term used to refer to children of communist parents, it refers here to the Liberal Party’s traditional color). He’s a very close friend of Alemán who distanced himself when the PLC strongman was tried and convicted and has even tried his hand together with Bolaños at forming another Liberal party, the Grand Liberal Union (GUL), stillborn forerunner of today’s floundering APRE. For all that, it would be imprudent to believe he was elected with anything other than Alemán’s full blessing.

PLC losers fight back

The announcement of the mini-convention scheme sparked different reactions among the PLC’s pre-candidates. Two resigned to back Rizo, reading the writing on the wall, while the others all charged that Alemán and his minions had already decided the result.

Noel Ramírez, who actually withdrew from the race to protest the election modality Alemán invented, seemed the most aggrieved. He has always been extremely loyal to Alemán, was Central Bank president during Alemán’s administration and suffered the cancellation of his US entry visa for alleged acts of corruption during that period. His campaign chief for the aborted primaries was even Alemán’s daughter, National Assembly representative María Dolores Alemán.

He and the other four protesting pre-candidates (Ramiro Sacasa, Francisco Aguirre, Haroldo Montealegre and Enrique Quiñónez) futilely complained of a lack of transparency, under-the-table deals and Alemán’s excess meddling. The eternally confrontational and crass Quinónez once again managed to out-shout everyone else. “I believe, I want to believe, I need to believe in Arnoldo Alemán’s word,” he railed. “If he handpicks a candidate it would mean he doesn’t keep his word. If he imposes the candidate, the chosen one, the party, Nicaragua and Arnoldo Alemán will all lose.”

Sadly enough, Quiñónez might well have been selected had the conventioneers been totally free to vote for their preferred choice and Alemán had indeed remained on the sidelines. He came in second with 17% of the votes. While Quiñonez’s visceral anti-Sandinista views appeal to numerous Liberal voters, Alemán had to avoid such an unpresentable candidate in order to milk the negotiations over other slots for all he can in the next couple of months. Rizo may not be the most loyal choice, but he’s definitely the best one for this purpose, given his political skills and acceptability to Washington.

Loyalty to Alemán
not the issue this time

To the surprise of many, the strong loyalty that Alemán curried over the years, whether based on gratitude for some individual act of generosity—invariably with public funds—or on shared financial motives and methods, has hardly flagged, even with his conviction. Less surprisingly, expressions of that loyalty have multiplied among PLC legislators and party leaders since the victory in the coast elections. The scent of a victory in November, which would open up a number of high government posts, has made friendships—and rivalries—all the more palpable.

But this time, currying Alemán’s favor doesn’t necessarily ensure either a candidacy on the legislative slate or one of the many jobs these posts spin off. Given the novel phenomenon of a deeply divided anti-Sandinista Right this year, a PLC victory in November will largely depend on the deals Alemán and his lieutenants can negotiate to create the most favorable alliances and concessions.

The vice presidential slot is the major horse on the trading block for these negotiations, followed by the departmental and national slates of National Assembly representatives. Even more important than getting on a legislative slate, however, is one’s ranking on it. In an election with three or four strong parties running, no one party can expect to win more than the top quarter to third of its choices.

Yes to the machinery,
no to the machinist

The trouble for the PLC is that the Bush administration is not only twisting the screws to unify the Right and assure Daniel Ortega’s defeat, it’s also determined that Alemán give up control of that Right and that the Right abandon him. The PLC and Alemán are equally determined not to cave in to Washington’s extraordinary pressure. The turning of these screws, which the party’s new candidate is now starting to feel as well, will require many more maneuvers by both the party and its leader.

The PLC’s favorable results in the coast elections obliged Ambassador Trivelli to tone down his insistent interference in Nicaragua’s electoral process. His idea of a more nuanced message is along the lines of “Yes to the PLC and its machinery, but never to Alemán the machinist.”

Does the ambassador really think that such repeated abrasive declarations, covered daily in full detail on the television news, are an effective way to pressure the electorate, or for that matter the PLC? Every time he opens his mouth, what he says is so impertinent that it could be helping consolidate Alemán’s leadership and polarize the electorate. Cultivating the image of a persecuted victim has often brought electoral success in Nicaragua.

Trivelli gave Rizo
the US endorsement…

Trivelli was his most categorical on March 7, two days after the coast elections rejuvenated the PLC ranks: “The United States will not accept Alemán, any member of his family or inner circle or anybody hand picked by him as a PLC candidate.” So who’s left?

Ten days later, Trivelli again called Alemán “corrupt” and “a criminal.” He only began to backpedal just before the mini-conventions, when it was obvious that Rizo had already been “chosen”: “Our problem isn’t with the PLC as a party, or with Liberalism as a political philosophy, or with the candidacy of Rizo, a man I’ve known for many years. Our problem is with Arnoldo Alemán’s control over the party.”

Does Rizo have any credentials to be “recognized” by the United States? After his election, Trivelli, while acknowledging that Rizo had been handpicked and that the primaries had been nothing more than a “show,” nonetheless called Rizo “honest and capable.” Content with those two adjectives, Rizo responded confidently: “What he has said about me is good enough, because the US government is eminently pragmatic; what it doesn’t want is a Sandinista government, and I can ensure that.”

Given his long history in the PLC, Rizo guarantees an important number of votes from Liberal grass roots traditionally loyal to the red flag. But Rizo is also a potential “Bolaños,” who could prove capable of abandoning Alemán again, once in power. Was it to prevent the risk of another Bolaños that Alemán’s daughters worked for the candidacy of the loyal and unconditional Noel Ramírez? Was Rizo in fact the US choice, as Bolaños had been before him?

…then came
Jeanne Kirkpatrick...

The screws were given another turn on March 21 when Jeanne Kirkpatrick, US ambassador to the UN during the eighties’ contra war, Reagan’s war-mongering diplomatic point person in Central America and today head of the International Republican Institute, showed up in Nicaragua at President Bolaños’ invitation. Donning her former academic political scientist hat, she said she had come to learn more about Nicaragua’s “complicated” electoral process out of “strictly academic interest.”

Kirkpatrick “shared” the hardly surprising fruits of her brief research before she left: no one should ally with either Alemán or Ortega, and Monte-alegre “impressed” her but Lewites did not. She explained that when she met with Herty Lewites, “he started out by telling me that he’s a Sandinista. We didn’t ask him, but he said it and said he will continue to be a Sandinista… Fine, so he’s a Sandinista who wants independence from Ortega. All very interesting, but I still don’t know what he wants to do.”

…and next came Calderón Sol

Two days later there was yet another push for anti-Sandinista unity. For the second time, former Salvadoran President Armando Calderón Sol arrived in Nicaragua in the name of ARENA, the most solid rightwing party in Central America.

Playing soft cop to Trivelli’s hard cop, he publicly recognized Alemán’s leadership, said he could not be dispensed with, visited him and acted as a bridge between him and Montealegre. He reportedly offered Montealegre the vice presidential slot on the PLC ticket, 15 representatives on the PLC legislative slates and control of the economic Cabinet in the next Liberal government if he would agree to abandon the ALN and climb on the PLC bandwagon.

In a television interview over a week before the PLC officially announced Rizo’s presidential candidacy, Calderón Sol posited that Rizo and Montealegre would make an ideal anti-Sandinista ticket, but that it would require “patient” work. This cocktail would give the government a strong shot of neoliberalism chased by a dose of corruption.

Montealegre denied having been made any offer and reiterated that he wanted nothing whatsoever to do with Alemán. While he was resisting in one corner of the ring, José Antonio Alvarado, pre-candidate for APRE—the party Bolaños created and in which many of his government officials are participating—was performing cartwheels in the other.

Alvarado trailed Montealegre 48% to 12% in the latest poll in March, but within the PLC he is the most popular Liberal politician with the greatest ability to attract votes. Will the PLC’s final ticket be Rizo-Alvarado? Or perhaps Rizo-Vidaurre, uniting the PLC with a sector of Conservatives? Like Alvarado, Noel Vidaurre has admitted his willingness, and has even printed up his own flyers.

Enter politics of the absurd

Alemán knows all about betrayal and risk, so why anoint Rizo as the PLC presidential candidate? What acrobatics are behind this choice? Could he have been selected to guarantee Daniel Ortega a divided Right? While Rizo is the best choice to pull votes away from the popular Montealegre, he’s likely to lose to Ortega as long as the Right remains divided. In the scenario of an Ortega victory, the quid pro quo is that Ortega would order the appeals court he controls to overturn the conviction due to “lack of sufficient evidence,” thus wiping Alemán’s political record clean and making him eligible for presidential office again in 2011. Could this moral back flip lie at the heart of the Ortega-Alemán pact? It’s much more appealing to Alemán than the amnesty the US government reputedly once offered him in exchange for unifying the Right because an amnesty would leave his record still tarnished and mark the end of his office-seeking days. The limited appeal of an amnesty casts doubt on the sincerity of the fruitless and seemingly desperate attempt by PLC legislators to push an amnesty decree through the National Assembly before Rizo’s win in the mini-conventions.

Prioritizing his own personal interests, Alemán could be gambling on losing the elections to win his freedom. And while Ortega loyalists proclaim that it’s “better to lose with Daniel than to win with anyone else,” Ortega appears to be playing to win.

At the end of the day, the Ortega-Alemán pact’s has bloated the institutional structures, divvied up the power within them and shifted constitutional powers from the executive to the legislative branch. As a result, it has rendered winning and losing relative terms as long as the pact remains in effect and the two parties can hang onto their joint control of the National Assembly, allowing them to run the country from there in accord with their shared interests.

Does the trial in Panama have
Alemán against the ropes?

Even if he gets the liberty he’s looking for in Nicaragua, however, Alemán is still facing an imminent trial in Panama on money-laundering charges, along with his wife, his father-in-law, his former tax director Byron Jerez (the brains behind the hyper-corruption Alemán instituted during his term in office), and Jerez’s wife and daughter. Panama’s Public Prosecutor has accused them of laundering $56 million of Nicaragua’s public funds by triangulating deposits in 25 Panamanian bank accounts.

The preliminary hearing finally got underway on March 30. It was originally scheduled for last November, but had to be postponed due to the intentional indolence of Nicaragua’s Supreme Court magistrates, who failed to notify Alemán; last-minute delaying tactics by the defendants’ lawyers in Panama, who challenged the accusing judge; and the defense lawyers’ failure to show up on the rescheduled date, alleging medical problems.

This is the first time that a former Latin American President and one of his top officials have been tried for acts of corruption in another country. During the preliminary hearing, Panama’s special Anti-corruption Attorney presented abundant evidence of how the accused organized the embezzlement of the public Nicaraguan resources and formally asked the judge to open a criminal trial against them and issue an international warrant for their arrest and preventive detention.

Byron Jerez
absolved in Nicaragua

Offering nothing to refute the evidence of the theft, the defense lawyers only alleged procedural errors and argued their clients’ innocence based on a resolution issued by the Nicaraguan Comptroller General’s Office—controlled by the PLC-FSLN pact—plus the various rulings absolving Byron Jerez of all charges of corruption, which he bought at a high price from Nicaragua appeals court judges who answer to Nicaragua’s main political leaders.

Thus Jerez’s convictions in all eight trials on the accusations filed against him in 2002 have been overturned. On March 7, Judge Ligia Rivas ordered the state to return all his confiscated real estate and other property, bank accounts and CENIs. With mind-boggling cynicism, Jerez promptly announced that he would sue the state for 100 million córdobas in damages (over $5.7 million).

The Attorney General’s office says it will appeal Judge Rivas’ scandalous decision, the last symbolic nail in the coffin of Bolaños’ fleeting and ultimately failed attempt to go after corruption. Daniel Ortega, who had his own reasons for initially helping Bolaños get Alemán stripped of his immunity, ended up perverting the process through his control over judges and justices.

Following Rivas’ ruling, Nicaragua’s defense minister made a disquieting declaration: “The country’s judicial branch is the chief partner of the international drug traffickers…. They will soon have the power to select and remove Nicaraguan Presidents and legislators at will, as has already happened in Colombia.” Several Supreme Court justices promptly threatened to sue him, but nothing more has been heard on the issue.

Can Alemán possibly find a dignified way out of this one?

During the preliminary hearing in Panama, Jerez’s attorney tried to throw the blame on Alemán, arguing that his own client never benefited personally from the money and was only obeying orders. Esteban Duquestrada, who was treasury minister while the embezzlement was going on, provided evidence against Alemán, in exchange for the Panamanian Public Prosecutor’s Office dropping the charges against him.

The judge is scheduled to hand down his preliminary ruling a few days after envío goes to the press. What influence might the US government exert on the course of this trial? What kind of acrobatics will Alemán have to perform to slip free of this one? What will he have to give up and to whom? How much is he willing to sacrifice?

At the end of the hardly favorable hearing in Panama, Alemán said in Managua that he was doing fine. On his way out of his hacienda-prison to visit Cardinal Obando—which has become a routine whenever he’s going through a difficult situation—he smilingly admitted to the cameras: “I am indeed a thief, because I keep stealing my people’s heart.”

Some clarity, many doubts

Nicaragua’s electoral campaign won’t officially get underway until August 19, although it really began over a year ago. Since then the polls have been showing that the PLC and the FSLN still have the strongest support, largely because both enjoy an organized and disciplined membership. Contradictorily, however, the presidential hopefuls with the highest popularity ratings and greatest voter intention are the dissidents from both parties: Liberal banker and former treasury minister Monte-alegre on the Liberal side, and former tourism minister and Managua mayor Herty Lewites on the Sandinista side.

How will the PLC and the FSLN resolve this contradiction: fairly at the election tables or unfairly through some legal or illegal acrobatics? While we’ll find out in 75 days, it could take longer to answer other questions about this unique, potentially four-sided election: will Montealegre’s Liberal support hold now that Rizo is backed up by the PLC’s well- organized campaign machinery? Will Rizo’s formal entry onto the campaign trail mark the beginning of Montealegre’s collapse? On the other side of the equation, it would seem that the sympathy expressed for the alliance forming around Herty Lewites is more deeply rooted and has a long-term project that neither begins nor ends with the elections. The MRS Alliance—including Lewites’ own nascent Movement to Rescue Sandinismo, the MRS and now the FSLN’s Democratic Left tendency—faces a less popular opponent in Ortega than Montealegre does in Rizo.

How will the contradiction between voters’ party preferences on the one hand and candidate preferences on the other play out on the legislative ballots? Some polls suggest that the strong tradition of voting a straight party ticket is holding true so far. That means that even if both Rizo and Ortega fall just short of the 35% needed to win the presidency on the first round, the combined votes for their respective parties in that round would still give them a continued joint majority in the National Assembly. This would guarantee that the pact and its effects could not be rolled back, even if they were to end up short of the greater majority required to make further constitutional changes.

The most recent polls, conducted before Rizo’s selection, show a technical tie among Montealegre, Lewites and Ortega when voters were asked whom they would vote for if the elections were held today. If that three-way split holds a second round will be required, and the possible permutations will only increase once Rizo’s popularity starts climbing in the polls. For example, if all other things remained equal, which they surely won’t, could Rizo’s entry theoretically cut into the vote for Montealegre to the point that a second-round run-off could be between Ortega and Lewites? Will the Right remain split until the second round or could the specter of a Sandinista win ultimately soften Montealegre’s determination to run against the PLC and up the PLC offer to bring him back into the Liberal fold? And now that the PLC contender has a face and name, what moves are Ortega and Lewites each contemplating to avoid another anti-Sandinista victory?

Although there are many doubts about what will happen between now and November 5, a few “certainties” can be ventured. The first is that six months is a very long time in a country so frequently visited by unpredicted twists and turns as Nicaragua. Second is that polls never tell the whole story in Nicaragua; the most recent reminder being their prediction of an FSLN victory in March’s coast elections. Third is that there is still a significant segment of undecided voters—roughly 20% if the polls are any indicator—who could yet spring a surprise. And fourth, the stakes are incredibly high, because if the new political forces fail to dent the FSLN-PLC domination, the pact could be consolidated for a long time to come.

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