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  Number 323 | Junio 2008
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Nicaragua

Nicaraguans Squeezed on All Sides

The pincer strategy designed by the FSLN-PLC pact nine years ago forced the population into a bipartite electoral choice between candidates hand-picked by Daniel Ortega or Arnoldo Alemán. It was reactivated this month and combines with another by two forces at work in Daniel Ortega’s government: one privatizing state resources to family businesses and the other party-izing social programs to serve the governing couple’s political project.

Nitlápan-Envío team

There are moments when every thing just seems to hit at the same time. Last month was like that. The global energy crisis, one of the roots of the global food crisis, blew up into a nationwide transport strike in Nicaragua, full of economic consequences and political lessons. Only a few days after that nearly two-week stoppage ended, an unexpected near-hurricane storm called Alma caused major damage in the Pacific area of the country, particularly the northwest. It highlighted yet another root of the global crisis challenging Nicaragua—climate change.

Both disasters were rife with signs of the government team’s inefficiency and inability to guide society and the country in such difficult situations. Clouding the panorama even more was new evidence of government corruption.

The strongest protest in 17 years

On May 5, drivers parked their inter-urban passenger buses and microbuses in long rows at important points along major highways, partially blocking the passage of private vehicles. They didn’t move for 12 days. Their drivers were all there too, every day, protecting their vehicles and expectantly demanding a solution from the government. Those vehicles were merely the first to kick off a transport strike that quickly acquired a far wider scope. Soon not only inter-urban passenger vehicles but also city buses, taxis and cargo trucks all over the country had braked to a halt with few exceptions—mainly individual taxi driver-owners whose daily fares mean the difference between eating and not eating.

The non-stop rise in fuel prices has made the activity of the thousands of individual and company owners of public transport services less profitable with every passing day. They didn’t demand a hike in fares, which the impoverished population can barely pay as it is, but rather a freeze in fuel prices so they could continue providing passenger services without charging more. They were quickly joined by cargo haulers, who claimed that Nicaragua’s continually climbing cost of living is due in part to the constant rise in transport costs.

In Managua, the local public buses, which have been receiving subsidies for years so they can keep fares frozen, didn’t join until a few days into the strike, and then only partially. Because those of us in the capital weren’t hit at first, we were slow to appreciate the magnitude of what was happening around us.
What was happening was a first in 17 years: the massive mobilization of an organized, tenacious sector not directed or activated by the FSLN. Not only had the party not orchestrated this struggle; it soon discovered it also couldn’t deactivate it, control those mobilized or manipulate the negotiations.

Normally an unloved sector,
the strikers had support

Entire areas of the country were incommunicado for 12 straight days; even the transport workers from the Caribbean Coast joined the strike, which was unusual. Some farm production was lost because it couldn’t get to market and stores started running out of goods. The economic losses—especially those of the rural family economy—haven’t even been tallied.

For a variety of reasons the passenger transport sector normally engenders little sympathy from the rest of the population. Many bus and van drivers are discourteous and irresponsible, the cause of numerous fatal traffic accidents on both city streets and rural highways. Managua’s bus drivers are viewed as privileged because of their subsidies, particularly as it is commonly believed that the owners of the buses make good money but don’t manage it well. Furthermore, one of the largest bus cooperatives in the capital is linked to the FSLN, and is known for using its weight with as much finesse as the US Teamsters under Jimmy Hoffa.

Nonetheless, the population backed the stoppage, recognizing that the strikers’ demands were fair. They also understood that if fuel prices weren’t frozen, fares would go up, followed by the price of everything else. People joined the drivers in their “park-ins,” sometimes bringing them food and drink, and defending them from the police in León, Masaya and other population centers. They also piggy-backed the mobilization, covered continually by the media, to express a lot more discontent.

On May 6, a sizable police contingent was deployed against the drivers in León, who resisted the forcible removal of their vehicles from the streets. The Nicaraguan Human Rights Center (CENIDH) counted 12 microbuses, 17 taxis, 9 buses and 8 small cargo trucks, the majority with their windows broken by the police agents who towed them away. The police were reportedly acting on express presidential orders, as they always do in conflicts of this size, but the force was inexplicable compared to their total absence from March’s Chureca garbage dump strike and from the bloody protest over the election postponement in the northern Caribbean Coast.

The official media downplayed the strike’s dimensions or bad-mouthed its leaders; the FSLN-controlled social organizations remained silent; and the President himself didn’t make an appearance for over a week. It was a palpable change, given that during the three governments preceding his Ortega had always mobilized these organizations to defend the same transport workers in their violent protests.

Let the “black box” be opened

Transport leaders and economists made concrete proposals in the media and in the park-ins: a fuel price freeze for a year and a half… at least a year… or at least three months. The solutions shouldn’t be transitory, but should provide some stability to an economy “pulverized” by the oil price rises, to use Liberal legislator Aguirre Sacasa’s word for Nicaragua’s economic situation.

Some made a strategic suggestion: that the resources to freeze, subsidize or even lower fuel prices should come from a frequently announced and just as frequently postponed tax reform. But from day one, the main demand heard on the streets was that they should come from Venezuelan cooperation. The Nicaraguan government has been receiving preferential treatment in its oil purchases from Venezuela since 2007 and has been managing everything related to that and other aspects of the aid agreement with President Chávez in absolute secrecy, so targeting that agreement was logical. The transport sector determined to open the government’s “black box.”

Managua Mayor Dionisio Marenco, the man who broached the agreement with Hugo Chávez even before Ortega was elected, proposed that the President travel to Venezuela to talk with Chávez about getting more advantages for Nicaragua, even a preferential price. “Although it’s prohibited by OPEC, Nicaragua consumes so little that it could be done,” he advised.

Ortega tried to divide,
but failed to conquer

While continuing to say nothing publicly, the government and its political operators hauled out their typical methods: divide the transport cooperatives through buy-offs and threats. But this time it didn’t work, even with the Sandinista bus cooperatives. The lack of confidence in this government’s ministers—who either don’t talk or do so without authority or frankness—became quickly clear. The transport minister was booed in the first meeting with the heads of the transport companies, which was only called after a full week of paralysis. His proposal to lower the price of a gallon of fuel—fast approaching $5—by a mere $0.06 infuriated the strikers, solidifying them into an even more unified bloc.

Following the customary route of so many other conflicts, the government proposed that Cardinal Obando mediate and guarantee the agreements, but the transport sector refused to accept him and no agreement was reached. Obando’s lack of credibility is increasingly apparent in the country as a whole.

On May 12, the strikers said they would only negotiate directly with Daniel Ortega. Speakers at the park-ins all over the country warned Ortega to act responsibly, insulted him with unpublishable epithets and threatened to expel him from government at machete-point. Most astonishing of all, those who used such language frequently admitted being Sandinistas, having voted for Ortega and having been “taught by Sandinismo how to struggle.”

Rafael Quinto, the ambiguous director of the Managua bus strikers, lamented Ortega’s autism. “They’ve isolated him,” he acknowledged.

Police Chief Granera: “We regret what we did”

Tuesday, May 13, was the most violent day. Unknown actors set fire to the front section of two trailer trucks and there were pitched battles among police, drivers and residents at various strategic points along the highways. In Las Maderas, CENIDH reported that the police had engaged in “a furious repressive attack and a witch hunt within the community.” Dozens of people were hurt, including police officers.

The next day, in an unprecedented and exemplary move, Police First Commissioner Aminta Granera—the public figure who continually gets the highest rating in Nicaragua’s public opinion polls—went to Las Maderas to apologize to the residents for her subordinates’ excesses. She hugged them one by one, saying “we regret what we did.” Granera also ordered the release of the dozens of jailed drivers and residents.

The situation couldn’t go on. That same day, the ninth of the strike, it was announced that Ortega would address the nation at 5 pm on a national media hook-up. Even though it was his first appearance since the start of the strike, he didn’t show up until 7:30, typical of his lack of punctuality.

In another of his increasingly endless, rambling speeches, Ortega called on Nicaraguans to thank God that he’s the one governing us, appealed to people’s “conscience” and “Christian spirit” to halt the strike. He also proposed a bizarre “solution” to the taxi glut in the capital: that taxi drivers work only one day a week to alleviate the competition and allow them to earn more. There are currently 12,000 licensed cabs in Managua because each new President issues licenses to supporters. They already only work a rotating half day, turning what was once sustainable employment into bare survival, worsened by the city’s increasing economic violence.

How much is
in the “black box”?

The only concrete offer in his interminable speech was to lower the price of a gallon of fuel by $0.50. The President’s irresponsible words insulted the strikers and the still-paltry offer enraged them. The minute he finally stopped speaking, they announced that the strike would continue.

The most interesting part of the speech was that Ortega finally opened the “black box,” detailing the Venezuelan resources managed in a “parallel budget” about which no institution has any information or control. The itemized account he offered is unverifiable as the little piece of paper he read from is the only source.

“Just in [electricity] generation investments for the 60-megawatt plants; that cost US$207,680,000… Work is underway on the first phase of the [oil] refinery, and $8 million has been invested so far. The ALBA-CARUNA Fund Program of credits being provided to small producers, to cooperatives… and there are other ALBA Fund programs where we’re talking about $71,884,000.90: there are Streets for the People, housing programs, Zero Usury, Zero Hunger... Another Credit Program of BANDES with the Bank of ALBA is totaling $36,948,600. Other social projects are also being developed all over the country, where we’re talking about $35,367,000. Strengthening of agricultural production; there we’re talking about $21,367,000. Other cooperation programs add up to $60,068,000. That makes a total, in a year and a few months, of $520,516,500. The truth is that we’re overdrawn with the ALBA Fund, but, as our Venezuelan brothers aren’t putting many conditions on us, thank God, we can be overdrawn.”

Although the figures he chose to itemize fall short of $520 million by roughly $80 million, the total is quite close to what has been speculated. But economist José Luis Medal was not convinced: “In a country with a GDP that barely hits $6 billion, an investment of that amount would have already triggered an economic reactivation that isn’t visible anywhere.” Was he questioning the total amount or its claimed uses?

Such an enormous sum, not to mention its unverifiable distribution, caused a scandal in the legal world: has the President committed a crime by his discretionary use of so much public money? In the real world, however, it was just more of the words that rock us daily, when he speaks of laws that aren’t respected, institutions that don’t function, figures that can’t be proven, promises that aren’t kept, abuses that aren’t punished, corruption that’s rampantly practiced and impunities that are firmly in place.

The wheels finally rolled again

Ortega’s first appearance to try to halt the strike was so far off base that its negative results gave him an excuse to skip the Fifth Latin American-European Union Summit held in Lima, where social movements highly critical of his government’s questionably “leftist” course awaited him. Women’s groups in particular were poised to reproach him yet again for the FSLN’s opportunistic contribution to the criminalization of therapeutic abortion in Nicaragua. Ortega has paid a political price for that inherent human rights error that keeps on charging.

Two days after opening the black box and unable to clarify, divide, manipulate, convince or cut a deal with the strikers, Ortega had only one more option: cave in. In a far briefer appearance than the first one, he promised inter-urban bus and taxi workers a $1.30 discount in diesel and gas prices at government-designated stations, without specifying where this subsidy would come from. Both national and international cargo companies were excluded from the agreement. He also agreed to the creation of technical negotiating tables to find a more lasting solution to the problem that the unstoppable rise in international oil prices will continue generating.

With that the strike was called off, but given that the transport workers got a discount and not a freeze, the oil price rises continued pulverizing and the subsidy immediately began to shrivel. Twenty days after the strike ended, the government’s lack of control over the sale of the cheaper fuel had created a small black market, fueled by the fact that diesel prices had overtaken gas prices for the first time in over a decade and hit $5 a gallon. Furthermore transport spokespeople denounced that the technical negotiation tables had been invaded: soon they were being chaired by the departmental Councils of Citizen’s Power and Sandinista mayors who were only listening to transport cooperatives soft on the government.

The great contradiction right now

Is another strike in the offing? The oil problem is worldwide, and Nicaragua is an irrelevant country in this larger setting, with no input into resolving it at that level. Although Ortega has the agreement with Chávez, it’s a pretty narrow door for maneuvering purposes.

The problem has emerged right now because Ortega decided to use the resources and links with Venezuela and with Chávez for his own priority political project, which is to guarantee his perpetuation in power. The contradiction between that project and what the international and national moment is requiring of him is central. Economist Adolfo Acevedo sees it this way: “If the government doesn’t use the Venezuelan resources to cushion the oil prices’ massive and grave impact on the economy and the population, particularly as they are reaching levels increasingly hard for the economy and society to absorb, the resulting crisis could get so severe it could also undermine his own political priorities.

“It seems neither a realistic, intelligent or responsible option that the economy and society ‘adjust the best they can’ to the impact of the oil price rises while the country has resources that keep increasing along with those rises, just so [Ortega can] concentrate obsessively on pushing a political project designed before this crisis.

“A political project designed and pushed without considering the country’s needs and the crisis it imposes can’t be viable. Even if the government isn’t responsible for the price increases, it is responsible for heading up the administration of the crisis, following the advice President Evo Morales gave it in Managua: learn to listen and begin to communicate. It has to break with autism and seriously, deliberatively define ways the country can recover viability in the medium and long run.”

Revelations of the strike

The transport strike was revealing. nothing is certain in Nicaragua, but it will probably be a watershed for the FSLN because it “lost the streets,” for Ortega because he looked more incapable than ever of managing people’s discontent and for his official discourse because he talks about “the wretched of the earth” without offering any viable answers for the wretched of Nicaragua and only proclaims himself the “people’s President” when they applaud him. It may well even mark a watershed for social mobilization after years of inertia and manipulation. It should also force the political opposition to sit up and think, as it was displaced by a sector that expressed itself independently of any existing party.

Ortega’s 38% support is
on a very slippery slope

Hopefully it will also be a wake-up call for Sandinistas as a whole. A large percentage of the strikers were Sandinista, and they were highly disappointed by “their” government’s lack of responses.

This disappointment may have hit a new low with the strike, but it didn’t start there. Sandinista support for the FSLN government had already been eroding over the months, little by little, blow by blow. The polls show it and one feels it in the streets.

In the latest quarterly national survey by the M&R polling firm, conducted May 3-9, almost a third (32.3%) of those who identified themselves as FSLN sympathizers expressed a distance from Ortega because he’s “authoritarian” and over half (52.7%) said he hadn’t fulfilled his promises of zero hunger and zero unemployment. In the total universe of the polling sample, eight of every ten Nicaraguans also gave him low marks. Given that only 38% voted for him in the first place, he has lost close to half of his relatively paltry electoral vote.

The same poll took the pulse of public opinion about the government’s emblematic political priority: the Councils of Citizens’ Power, a supposed incarnation of the central idea that the “people are President.” Only 3.2% of all those polled admitted being a CPC member and only 16.6% said they might consider joining in the future. These figures don’t look good for Ortega’s project, particularly since the survey was done during the first days of the transport strike; they were surely worse by the end.

The latest round of the pact

The minute the transport situation returned to normal, President Ortega, conscious of the erosion of his political priority of getting reelected no matter what it takes, cranked up the negotiations already underway in a new round of the PLC-FSLN pact. Ortega’s big goal this time is constitutional reforms that will permit him to run for reelection in 2011.

“Politics is necessarily based on me giving to them so they’ll give to me,” unabashedly explained PLC legislator Wilfredo Navarro, one of former President Arnoldo Alemán’s most unconditional supporters. As has been true since 2003, the political future of Alemán, who still has his hand in every political pot despite the erosion to his own political career due to a conviction on various counts of rampant corruption, was an issue in this “give and take.” Will he serve out his entire sentence as a “prisoner” unable to run for office but with complete freedom of movement, which Ortega gave him well over a year ago, or will he finally get his definitive freedom with restitution of his political rights? It still remains to be seen.

The only non-controversial pact decision made public in May was to shift the national date of the municipal elections from November 2—the traditional celebration of the Day of the Dead—to November 9. More problematic, but hardly unexpected, was the naming of eight Supreme Court justices to fill the seats of those whose terms end in June and September. Some are new and some will return, but as has been the case ever since the pact began, they are divided evenly between the two parties.

New twists on the Caribean Coast election postponement

Another deal was the final decision on the postponed date for municipal elections in the Caribbean. In April, blood had run in the streets of Bilwi, capital of the northern Caribbean region, in clashes between members of the regional Miskitu political party called Yatama who favored its alliance with the FSLN and those who opposed it. The trigger was the request by pro-FSLN Yatama leader Brooklyn Rivera to postpone the upcoming municipal elections in three municipalities of that region, alleging lack of conditions due to the damage Hurricane Felix caused last September. The very afternoon of that violent confrontation, the Supreme Electoral Council (CSE) announced that the elections in those three municipalities would be postponed until April 2009. This illegal action—a worrying precedent for future elections as electoral dates are set by law and thus should only be changed by the National Assembly—briefly united all the opposition legislators. They pledged publicly that they would amend the Electoral Law to leave no room for doubt that such decisions do not correspond to the CSE.

But the bulk of those legislators belong to the PLC bench and their promises have the steadfastness of a ping pong ball in a championship game. Most of them sold any principles they may have once had to the pact. Although the junior partner in the pact negotiations, Alemán reaps lots of benefits for the party he still dominates. And he’s a power factor for loyal followers, guaranteeing them posts, perks and privileges in exchange for doing his bidding.

To concretize this new round of the pact, the National Assembly board members—all of whom belong to either the FSLN or the PLC—paralyzed legislative activity for a month and a half while waiting for the list of items that had been bartered. The session resumed on June 2 and two days later the two benches, which together have the votes to do what they wish, pushed through the changes mentioned above.

As for the postponed voting in the North Caribbean, they added fuel to the fire by extending it from three municipalities to all seven and setting the date as January 18, 2009. If proof be needed that the postponement was not to ensure conditions, this served: if they still won’t exist 14 months after the hurricane’s passage—itself a questionable allegation—what good will 2 more months do? The only argument of any merit at all is that, with climate change, Nicaragua’s weather has become increasingly problematic in November—but all over the country, not just the coast.

Again forcing a bipartite system

The major political benefit for both parties so far in this round of the pact, however, wasn’t the electoral calendar or the naming of judges. It was a new and even more desperate attempt to force a bipartite system: the Supreme Electoral Council announced that it was canceling the participation in the municipal elections of four parties—two national and two regional ones from the Caribbean Coast. According to at least one of the parties affected, it was a groundless move, and as this issue went to press there were indications that it could seriously backfire on its perpetrators.

Imposing a bipartite system was one of the central objectives of the original 1999 pact between Alemán and Ortega, and only a few nuances are different today. First, the focus then was on the two parties to the pact whereas now both parties have been whittled down to what is known in Nicaraguan political circles as Danielistas and Arnoldistas. Second, in 1999 Alemán was President, busily dipping into the till, and Ortega was in the opposition, “governing from below.”

The Electoral Law we’re now saddled with—more exclusionary than most others the world over—is designed to prevent new political options from emerging and annul any existing ones that could pose a threat. And to make sure the law would get interpreted that way, the Supreme Electoral Council was altered to create a 5-member collegial executive body whose members were chosen for their unsway-able loyalty to the two party bosses. The elimination of the possibility of municipal and regional coast candidates by popular petition and the stiff requisites to create a new party had no other purpose than to create a kingdom in which only the two reigned. And should those “legal” impositions prove insufficient, the pact-loyal CSE magistrates could always make arbitrary rulings—as they have not hesitated to do on several occasions, including this one.

The only thing the pact couldn’t control was international cooperation, which took serious umbrage at the arbitrary elimination of several opposition parties, such that a couple of others made it onto the 2000 municipal ballot and the 2001 presidential ballot. In the 2006 elections, even though Ortega won, the bipartite vision was shattered by the showing of National Liberal Alliance (ALN) candidate Eduardo Montealegre, who beat out the PLC candidate for second place, and by the Sandinista Renovation Movement (MRS) challenge to Ortega from the left. (MRS Alliance candidate Edmundo Jarquín got 20% of the vote in the capital). This promised a more pluralist race in the next elections, which of course had to be prevented.

The lash on the right

For months the main target of the attack on pluralism focused on the more independent Liberals in the ALN, in the person of Eduardo Montealegre. Money was poured into a propaganda campaign on government-run radio and television hammering home the message that he is a “thief” and the single person responsible for the infamous CENI bonds financial scandal. Now, with the latest rebirth of the pact comes the double pincer: further proof that he’s nothing but a thief is that he has allied with another thief: Arnoldo Alemán.

The first accusation against Monte-alegre is grossly exaggerated, but the second one is well deserved. It started when the CSE arbitrarily disqualified Montealegre as head of the ALN, assigning that post instead to Liberal Eliseo Núñez, now allied with the FSLN. In a picaresque move, Monte-alegre’s erstwhile enemy Alemán, with whom he had broken over Alemán’s corruption and caudillo-style political leadership style, offered to let him head the PLC’s mayoral ticket in Managua. Montealegre should have recognized it as the Spider Lady’s kiss of death, but being a politician who apparently wants to be President far more than he wants to be principled, accepted.

This opportunistic decision put him and his “We’re Going with Eduardo” group, which is not a registered party, in a very ambiguous and fragile position. Criticism rained down on him: how could he ally with Alemán? Supposedly he had negotiated a series of conditions to cover his back, yet everything the PLC has just negotiated with Daniel Ortega in this new round of the pact—election dates, Supreme Court justices, annulment of parties plus whatever else we have yet to discover—was done without consulting him, despite it having been a condition of the deal. The Montealegre-PLC alliance, already laced with distrust from the outset, is even dicier now.

The lash on the left

The transport strike’s revelations, the mounting social discontent with the complex and recurring crises the country is suffering, the government’s plummeting ratings and the ever less viable economic situation dictated a return to the pact’s original logic: prevent any party outside the circle of two from riding to victory on the back of the disaster the two party leaders have caused. On May 23 the CSE announced that it had annulled the legal status of the Sandinista Renovation Movement (MRS) Alliance and the Conservative Party (PC), as well as of PIM and PAMUC, two regional parties on the Caribbean Coast, claiming that they had failed to submit certain papers needed to legitimize their participation in the municipal elections. The move caught everyone off guard, because the time to pull such a stunt had long since passed. The CSE had officially included all four parties on the list of those participating in the municipal elections over a month earlier.

While the MRS is a small party of mainly middle-class urban intellectuals, it is a threat to the FSLN’s declining popularity even among Sandinistas. Those who voted Ortega into government included many Sandinistas who had left the party but sincerely believed that the “second chance” they were granting him would give the country the opportunity for more social justice that it so sorely needs. They believed the FSLN had learned something from its previous experience in power, that Ortega had accepted his errors and as President would make intelligent and socially sensitive changes favoring the poorest sectors. They also believed that the unity and reconciliation Ortega so frequently touts were genuine.

But those voters are now disillusioned yet again. Their hopes, already shaky, were stripped bare by the transport strike. They have increasingly come to believe that Ortega’s project is not national but family-based and that he cares more about perpetuating himself in power and building his image as an international leader than about talking and working with others to find solutions to people’s problems and the national crisis.

Many of these frustrated Sandi-nistas, both within and outside the FSLN, could potentially shift their vote to the MRS. The obvious way to nip that in the bud was to arbitrarily cancel the MRS’ legal status. The MRS didn’t take the blow lightly. It loudly insisted that it had in fact handed in the papers the CSE was using as a pretext and that a month earlier the CSE itself had accepted them as legal and proper, based on which it had legally certified the MRS to run in the elections.

This is the context in which we must situate the desperate measure taken by MRS leader Dora María Téllez on June 4, when she declared herself on a hunger strike “for democracy and for life, in solidarity with the thousands of Nicaraguans who are going hungry” and in protest at the CSE’s arbitrary cancellation of the political participation of Sandinistas who choose not to follow Daniel. “People are reaching the point of desperation,” explained Téllez, a guerrilla leader who co-executed the taking of the National Palace in 1978, was minister of health during the Sandinista government of the eighties then an elected legislator on the FSLN bench in the early nineties before leaving in the 1994 split that resulted in the formation of the MRS. “This strike is to touch the hearts that can still be touched and to warn those in the pact that Nicaragua already has an owner: the people,” she stated.

Why the other three parties?

It would appear that the PC was annulled because a number of its members refused to accompany Montealegre in his electoral alliance and decided to run alone in the municipal elections even though this once major party is now a mere shadow of its former self. Annulling Conservatives who are independent of both Montealegre and the PLC deepens the PC’s internal split and thus undermines any possibility that Montealegre’s remaining supporters in “We’re Going with Eduardo” might vote for the PC instead.

While the CSE was in its annulment frenzy, it tossed the two regional coast parties into the same sack. Why erase them from the political map, thus rubbing salt in still-fresh wounds on the coast? Presumably because of a risk that they might capitalize on the split in Yatama over its regional governing alliance with the FSLN, drawing votes away from both.

Three sets of pincers

It’s all calculated: if the discontent grows and abstention is massive, it will favor the FSLN, which still has more disciplined members than any of the other parties. Ortega can count on them to turn out and vote the party line in a kind of blind faith that seems more religious than political. On the other hand, if abstention is normal, it will be a two-horse race between a discredited governing party and a discredited opposition party, both locked into a self-serving pact.

But this forced bipartite scheme isn’t the only pincer that has caught the country in its grip. Two forces inside the government are also squeezing the population. One, as we’ve seen, is using the state instruments as political tools to dominate, control and align the population, while the other is appropriating state resources to strengthen its private businesses. Both are harmful and both have privatized the state’s resources and institutions and used state programs that are supposed to benefit the population for patronage purposes to benefit the party and its loyal upper echelons. A third pincer is the governing couple itself, which is exercising hegemony over the other two.

Can this corruption be erased?

There is evidence in the work of these two political and business forces of projects with a clear smell of corruption. This month, both forces came together in a murky low-income housing project called “My people President” rapidly being thrown up in Managua. Details were just emerging as we closed this issue of envío.

How distant and hollow the communication strategy unveiled by the Ortega government in its first months in office now sounds. Drafted by First Lady and government spokesperson Rosario Murillo, it warned that the FSLN government must take care of several “highly sensitive fronts.” In her words, “In terms of image, we must position ourselves nationally and internationally as a new ethical, transparent, clean system. A single emblematic case of corruption would leave a stain that would be extremely difficult to erase. And it could relegate an effort around social issues to the back burner.” How many of these emblematic cases have we already learned about? Will the fragile Nicaraguan memory erase such stains?

With increasing pain…

The complexity of the crisis in which Nicaragua is currently enfolded demands a government with credible and exemplary leadership. It also requires the national unity emblazoned on this government’s official letterhead and all its colorful publicity spots. But what we have today is anything but that. If Nicaragua is dragged down its current path much longer, it will end up perilously far off course.

This isn’t just another of Nica-ragua’s interminable crises; it is one of the most difficult of our history. We had corruption and dictatorial abuse of power with Somocismo as well, but we also had the vision and hope of a better society and an organization that embodied that vision and hope and summoned the capacity to lead the population.

The material and moral corruption the country is suffering today is worse than during the Somoza years because we have no alternative social vision anymore and no alternative leadership has yet captured people’s trust. We have good intentions and still have a reserve of courage and dignity, but until that courage and those desires for a better Nicaragua translate into a vision that fires the imagination and hope of so many Nicaraguans who feel powerless and alone, Nicaraguan society will continue to bleed. In the absence of that vision and leadership, we will continue being prisoners of the dynamic that—with increasing pain— we synthesize in these pages each month.

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