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  Number 325 | Agosto 2008
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Nicaragua

The municipal elections this November 9 are shaping up as the means for consolidating the government’s strategic project. A resounding FSLN victory—on which the party-state’s institutions are already hard at work—will take us there. But where’s “there” and what awaits us upon arrival?

Envío team

Many have already qualified the upcoming municipal elections as a referendum on the first two years of Daniel Ortega’s second shot at governing the country, with voters consciously electing either FSLN candidates or those of its rivals as a way of endorsing or rejecting what Ortega has achieved so far. The Ortega-Murillo government’s controversial “logic” of power was what brought such a referendum scenario to mind.

But that perception is going up in smoke. The elections are now shaping up as the gateway to the radical political-institutional change that Ortega and his circle have designed and begun to implement. Some have labeled this project, which aims to produce a “system change” and even greater institutional control than already exists, an “institutional dictatorship.” With less than three months to go before election day, the path that will take Nicaragua there is strewn with evidence and questions.

Do the elections or the CSE have any legitimacy left?

Have the November 9 municipal elections already lost their legitimacy? The recent actions of the Supreme Electoral Council (CSE) would almost seem to have been geared to that purpose. First, it surprisingly brought forward the electoral calendar in February without consulting the political parties or giving any explanation for such haste in registering alliances and candidate lists. Then in April it annulled Eduardo Montealegre’s leadership of the Nicaraguan Liberal Alliance (ALN), a party he founded, granting it instead to Eliseo Núñez, now allied with the FSLN. That forced Montealegre, who came in second to Ortega in the presidential elections two years ago, to seek another ticket on which to run for mayor of Managua. He found it in the Constitutional Liberal Party (PLC), the very party that ostracized him at the end of 2005 for criticizing PLC leader and then-President Arnoldo Alemán’s corruption and his pact with the FSLN.

Next the CSE set a dangerous precedent by postponing the elections in all eight municipalities of the North Atlantic Autonomous Region with highly debated arguments about the after-effects of Hurricane Felix. The presumed real reason is that the Miskitu regional party Yatama, which runs the regional government there in alliance with the FSLN, risked an embarrassing electoral loss.

The capper of all the CSE’s moves was its cancellation of the legal status of the Conservative Party (PC) and Sandinista Renovation Movement (MRS) on questionable grounds a full month after having certified both them and their municipal candidates. Although small vote-getters, these are the only parties that consistently eschew the Alemán-Ortega bipartite rule. As an encore, the CSE announced last month that it will invite only one international group—one close to the FSLN—to observe election day and will apparently not accredit Ethics and Transparency, an independent national watchdog organization that has mobilized thousands of electoral observers for well over a decade.

All these decisions have undermined confidence in the electoral process and what remained of the CSE’s own credibility. The CSE, which is the fourth branch of government, was one of the first important national institutions taken over by the Alemán-Ortega pact ten years ago. The five magistrates serving at the time were dumped and the number increased to seven, six of which the FSLN and PLC divided evenly between them, handpicked from among their respective caudillos’ closest loyalists. Roberto Rivas, a protégé of Cardinal Miguel Obando, was selected as the “neutral” seventh magistrate, although reflecting the correlation of power at that time he initially tended to vote with his colleagues from the PLC. The following year the FSLN agreed to Rivas’ re-election as CSE president, the first step in the tight alliance Daniel Ortega has since forged with Obando, his erstwhile enemy. Since then, Rivas has made ever less effort to hide the benefits derived from his top post and how beholden he is to the FSLN and the pact’s bipartite objective.

Demonstrating a more effective logic of power than the PLC, the FSLN successfully jockeyed for positions at the head of the CSE departments that are strategic to determining any electoral process. Rivas’ leadership was decisive in ensuring that it happened. As the rightwing daily newspaper La Prensa revealed back in April, the FSLN now heads up five of the nine central CSE departments (attention to political parties, logistics, the central registry, the electoral rolls and computer input). Another three are in the hands of Rivas loyalists (cartography, human resources and financial administration). Only one (voter registration) is still headed by a PLC representative, although some of its functions began to be removed in early July, leading PLC National Assembly representative Maximino Rodríguez to charge that “the CSE is now the FSLN’s general headquarters for organizing fraud in the next elections.”

From top to bottom

According to the La Prensa article, the FSLN also heads up 12 of the 17 departmental CSE delegations, leaving only 5 to the PLC, and of course none to independent professionals. Rodríguez complains that militants of both the ALN and the tiny Alternative for Change—both of which are now allied with the FSLN—are heading municipal CSE delegations. As for the voting centers themselves, the electoral law establishes that they will be chaired by one representative each from the two parties that came in first and second in the last elections—respectively the FSLN and the ALN.

Thus the electoral system will wear the red and black colors of the FSLN from top to bottom, from CSE magistrates to voting tables. Ethics and Transparency director Roberto Courtney has stated numerous times that the CSE has been effectively controlled by a single party for some time now.

Eliseo Núñez Jr., spokesperson for the Let’s Go with Eduardo Movement (MVE), which split from the ALN when Montealegre lost control of his party, added more worrying information in April: he charged that the Electoral Police, which takes its orders from the CSE and exists solely to protect the voting centers on election day, will consist of members of the Councils of Citizens’ Power, essentially grassroots FSLN-government structures.

The 2004 municipal elections:
A different scenario

With none of these shenanigans, the FSLN obtained a resounding victory in the 2004 municipal elections, halfway through the administration of businessman Enrique Bolaños. It won the mayoral seat in 87 of the 152 municipalities, including 14 of the 17 departmental capitals and 25 of the country’s 42 most important cities. As a consequence it has locally governed 70% of the national population since January 2005.

The FSLN swept a number of important municipalities that traditionally voted Liberal, although the PLC still won the bulk of the less-populated rural municipalities. Between them they won 81% of the votes, with the Alliance for the Republic (APRE), the alternative that President Bolaños fabricated with so much energy and so many public resources to challenge “the pact’s caudillos,” pulling less than 10% of the votes and snuffing out its brief candle in the process.

This FSLN sweep cannot be explained without referring to its political-electoral alliance known as the National Convergence, an amalgam of well-known politicians from defunct or moribund parties or dissident splinter groups of still-existing ones. It included Conservatives, Liberals, Social Christians, former Resistance fighters and independent local leaders, as well as the MRS, which joined the Convergence as a party. This allowed the FSLN to present new and attractive candidates on its slate, chosen in a complex process designed by the Convergence members to reflect their different strongholds. Four years earlier, the FSLN running alone had only won 52 mayoral seats. MRS leader Dora María Téllez predicted before the 2004 elections that “if the FSLN remains with the same number of municipalities it won in 2000, the Convergence is useless. If we win more, if the votes grow, it works.”

The Convergence “worked”: mayoral candidates from the alliance won 17 municipalities and its deputy mayoral candidates sharing a ticket with an FSLN militant won another 67. Only in three municipalities (Chinandega, Malpaisillo and Cárdenas) did a ticket made up exclusively of FSLN militants win.

The alliance and its results were positive on many levels. A majority of the electorate appeared to perceive a difference in the candidates offered under the red and black banner. It was a political and even ethical novelty to see so many local leaders with a clean record on the ballot. Just as positively, the vote in 2004 seemed to express a sidelining of much of the fear of Sandinismo in areas still marked by the terrors and ugliness of the war.

Where has the Ortega-
Alemán pact brought us?

All of that seems so far away now, although it was barely four years ago. The hopes for a change in the political scene were very short lived. Just after those municipal elections, the FSLN’s disproportionate triumphalism and the PLC’s equally disproportionate desperation led the leaders of both parties to engage in a second stage of the pact to take over more government institutions, and in an even more associated fashion.

And so it was that Alemán and Ortega—the latter with a clear advantage over his partner, by then sentenced to 20 years for acts of corruption while President—again used their legislative benches to reform the Constitution, entrench themselves against President Bolaños and consolidate their bipartite project. Barely two months after the municipal elections, the new pact was signed and the famous photo of Ortega, Alemán and their cronies posing together in El Chile, Alemán’s “hacienda-prison,” was recorded for history. A few months after that the FSLN began violating the agreements that would have given content and continuity to the National Convergence. Then came the six-month institutional crisis designed by the pact to erode the Bolaños government. Meanwhile, the PLC had split, with Montealegre creating the ALN and financing his way to second place in the November 2006 presidential election, allowing Daniel Ortega to win with 38% of the vote against a divided Liberal opposition. All this brought us to where we are now.

With that “mandate,” Ortega’s project is to go further, to a “system change.” If the three successive stages of the pact with Alemán allowed Ortega and his group to divvy up all the state institutions with his partner, the FSLN’s clearest logic of power up to now has been to tip the balance of institutional control in favor of its own representatives. So far that has happened in the judicial and electoral branches. Daniel Ortega’s return to the presidential offices expresses his net victory in the pact with Alemán. His current strategic project relies on continuing that pact, but needing it ever less.

Toward a new “system”?

Given its embarrassing 38% presidential “mandate,” the FSLN needs an even more overwhelming victory in November’s municipal elections than it got in 2004. It aspires to add another 13 municipalities to the 87 it already governs to bring the number up to 100. Its electoral machinery, control of the CSE and elimination of a couple of horses from the race make that possible. The PLC is its only effective competition.

Meanwhile, the FSLN seems to be counting on the votes of the PLC and its other allies in the National Assembly to push through new constitutional reforms in what remains of this legislature. As any changes to constitutional-rank laws require two-thirds of the vote in two consecutive legislatures, these reforms would receive the final vote early in 2009 and go into effect before the end of Ortega’s term.

If that happens, the reforms would consolidate the strategic project of Ortega and his group, first and foremost by guaranteeing his continuation in power. The most frequently rumored constitutional change he wants is elimination of the prohibition of consecutive presidential reelection, thus allowing him to run again in 2011. The personality cult around Ortega observed today leaves no room to doubt this objective.

Beyond this, Ortega has publicly committed himself on various occasions to an even more drastic constitutional reform, which would change the directly elected presidential system in favor of a type of parliamentary one. He has even claimed that we’re on the way to “socialism” via “direct democracy.” None of these concepts has been fleshed out, leaving us with very ambiguous contents. All we can do is interpret them based on what the government has been doing and undoing, saying and not saying, both within the law and outside of it.

Is municipal
autonomy in danger?

The new “system” will be based on increasingly extending institutional and social control. The pact is already consolidating control of the institutions and the laws governing them, and this will not be easy to reverse given the vicious circle of having to do so via those very institutions and laws. The National Assembly is the only institution still outside that control. Will that be one of the constitutional reforms—bringing it into line by eliminating the two-thirds majority required for crucial decisions? Deciding all appointments and laws by a simple majority would put the legislative branch back in the hands of the FSLN-PLC, as it was after the 2001 general elections, before the ALN and the MRS broke up their near monopoly of votes.

A steamroller victory by the FSLN in November’s elections would plunge municipal decentralization into crisis, as the autonomy of local powers is barely underway and needs maturing.

Unlike the more independent candidates elected on the FSLN ticket in 2004, the candidates the FSLN is running this year have signed a commitment to obey the Councils of Citizens’ Power (CPCs), rather than the people who elect them or the totality of the population they’re supposed to serve. The CPC structures are directed from the central government and characterized so far mainly by an excluding party bias so evident that the government itself occasionally exhorts them to be more inclusive and pluralist.

More social control
and less participation?

Two of the main obstacles to consolidation of the Ortega project are the media and organized civil society. The President laces all his speeches with insults to both. He has called the opposition media “killers” and the “criminal children of Goebbels,” while terms such as “simpletons in the service of imperialism,” “sellouts,” “cowards,” “traitors” and “oligarchs” are part of his tiresome repertoire for the civil society groups, movements and individuals who criticize him. The Civil Coordinator, created right after Hurricane Mitch to strengthen the work of hundreds of organizations and networks, is a government priority for liquidation. “The only civil society is the CPCs, the only civil society is the San-dinistas gathered here,” shouted Ortega in the anniversary celebrations of the revolution in Carazo and Matagalpa.

To achieve the new system’s social control, the FSLN can be expected to place on the agenda legislation to increase control over the NGOs and media after its “resounding” electoral victory. This would likely include stricter adjudication and renewal of media licenses and NGO legal status. PLC legislator Wilfredo Navarro has spoken several times of a project to reform the NGO law, doing away with their autonomy. In fact, many NGOs are already being “visited” by executive branch institutions seeking to trap them in some real or invented legal slip.

The Democracy and Local Development Network has commented that it would be a real step backwards if the Municipalities Law and Law of Civic Participation were reformed to give the “direct democracy” of the CPCs and Cabinets of Citizens’ Power legal as opposed to merely de facto preeminence over the Municipal and Departmental Development Committees.

In 2005 the Organization of American States’ Inter-American Court of Human Rights ruled that the Nicaraguan state had to reform the electoral law to reinstate the possibility—eliminated by the pact—of independent municipal candidates running by popular petition. That reform would make local elections more inclusive and democratic again and could be the first step in breaking the vicious circle of institutional control that currently conditions so many aspects of national life. But not a hint of political will can be felt to comply with the court’s decision.

Rural political patronage?

The social programs administered by the CPCs are an essential piece of the FSLN’s strategic project. So far these programs haven’t gone beyond safety-net charity assistance, so their effects aren’t very pronounced. Furthermore, the coverage of both these programs and the more developmentalist schemes remains limited. The government’s insignia Zero Hunger program hasn’t produced the announced rural organization, the Development Promotion Bank hasn’t gotten off the ground and the Venezuelan credits for production are barely visible.

Either Venezuelan cooperation hasn’t provided the government enough financing or the government is using it for other priorities, such as consolidating personal business projects or strengthening the governing party by using it as patronage. Another possibility is that the deficient implementation noted during the government’s first year simply hasn’t improved much.

Are the micro-financing
institutions another target?

Is it fair to interpret the President’s allegedly inadvertent whipping up of a conflict last month between small groups of loan defaulters and the micro-financing institutions they’re in debt to as a sign that the government also wants to control micro-financing? This conflict is assessed in detail and in its context in the “Speaking Out” article in this issue.

Micro-financing institutions (MFIs) emerged in the early nineties to fill a structural credit vacuum in rural production and in micro, small and medium-sized commerce following the closure of the state development bank and the shift from public to private commercial banks. The disinterest of the succeeding governments as well as the commercial banks in the informal sector in general and peasant farmers in particular allowed the MFIs to grow to the point that they now work with some 450,000 clients and manage a portfolio totaling roughly US$400 million. The loans they offer to tens of thousands of families have improved their levels of economic autonomy, linking them into more and better market networks.

The MFIs aren’t controllable; they’re not part of the official network because they have to answer to those who finance them. Does the government view their approach and scope as an obstacle to pulling more families into its rural strategy?

Venezuela’s ALBA cooperation funds, the basic financial axis of the government strategy, are channeled through a savings and credit cooperative close to the FSLN called the National Rural Bank (CARUNA), founded in the nineties to provide rural financing and now transformed into ALBA-CARUNA. But so far its funds are too limited to allow the government to organize the majority of rural families around this axis.

If we assume the government needs to rearticulate its allied economic groups to accumulate forces over the long haul, the MFIs are pitfalls on the road to getting there. What can the government be expected to do in such a case? Impose more restrictive laws? Keep them off balance without a comprehensive legal framework? Or just continue labeling them “usurers” and encouraging their credit holders not to pay, an easy step back into the destructive loan-as-gift mentality of the eighties? Will it promote and finance “grassroots” protests like the recent ones in Jalapa and Ocotal demanding debt restructuring and reduced interest rates, hoping to bankrupt them or squeeze them into mere subsistence to force their appropriation? Or, in the best of all worlds, will it work with them with an inclusive vision that genuinely focuses on development?

The IMF’s endorsement

One of the highest cards in the gov¬ernment’s hand is the new position the International Monetary Fund has adopted toward Nicaragua. It has stopped pressuring the government around issues of governance and transparency as long as it preserves the country’s macroeconomic stability. Civil society’s insistent demand that Venezuela’s cooperation funds be included in the national budget, which the IMF once echoed, no longer has any weight. This naturally affects the other bilateral aid agencies, which for years have based their own moves on the IMF’s endorsement of governments it has agreements with.

The Ortega government, which has publicly berated as “interference” the donor community’s suggestions and conditions regarding issues of democratic governance, civic participation, women’s rights (including the ever-present issue of the criminalization of therapeutic abortion), strengthening of civil society and financial transparency, is now less beholden to these pressures. And the cooperation community is increasingly more “indecisive and powerless,” as stated in a recent study of the effectiveness of international aid in Nicaragua published by the Foundation for International Relations and Foreign Dialogue.

The weight of the crisis

Will Ortega be able to put all the pieces of this puzzle together to get “there”? Will this combo of reforms and laws aimed at what many now recognize as a trend of the Ortega project—the consolidation of an “institutional dictatorship”—actually materialize?

To achieve all this, the elections have to result in a huge FSLN victory. Do the conditions exist for it? The technical conditions do, but the human conditions are a problem. According to all polls, the FSLN is losing support even among its firm voters and the anti-Sandinismo of the eighties is reemerging forcefully, both in its traditional strongholds and in new arenas. Among diverse reasons, the main one is the country’s severe stagflation, resulting from fuel price rises, dropping remittance levels, departing investments, closing opportunities and responses that don’t materialize. Whether justifiably or simply by inertia, a majority of the population blames this crisis on the Ortega government, which promised “zero hunger” and “zero unemployment.”

The population isn’t hearing any explanations from its President about how we can confront the national crisis together. All it gets is rhetoric about what’s happening beyond our borders. Not a presidential speech goes by that doesn’t focus on the disasters of global capitalism, the terrorism of Yankee imperialism, the historical exploitation of European colonialism and the crimes of the Colombian government. National problems are never taken up anywhere near as energetically.

The weight of the polarization

There are other reasons for the resurgence of anti-Sandinista sentiments as well. While the government also promised “zero corruption,” there’s mounting evidence of nexuses of government officials and the private use of public funds. That evidence combines with the continuing non-accountability of the Venezuelan funds and lavish official acts that can only be termed offensive in a country with so many impoverished people. Then there’s the discrepancy between the government’s rhetoric of “unity and reconciliation” and the increasing intolerance and sectarian fanaticism with which the President and his media respond to any criticism or demands, clearly aimed at boycotting any expression of civic participation other than the official one.

In these two years in government, the FSLN has added virtually nothing positive. Its main contribution so far has been to divide society, multiplying anti-Sandinista feelings. How much will all this accumulated disappointment and distress weigh in the voting booth? Might it lead to an unexpected anti-Sandinista vote: not for another option but rather against this authoritarian and excluding logic of power just to stop Ortega? Given the elimination of most other party options on the ballot, any anti-FSLN, anti-Ortega sentiment can only be expressed by voting for the PLC.

The pebble in the
government’s shoe

In this atmosphere of opposition and polarization, Liberalism could make a comeback, beating back the FSLN in the rural municipalities where it was always strong. This is even more possible with Alemán’s and Montealegre’s respective Liberal movements now back together in the PLC box on the ballots. This Liberal unity is obviously fragile, because it was cobbed together for all the wrong reasons, but the FSLN hasn’t yet been able to pull it apart. The PLC wants to keep it together because a more resounding FSLN victory than in the 2004 municipal elections would put Alemán and his group at an even greater disadvantage in the next installment of the pact.

But the rural municipalities aren’t all that important; the crucial race is for the capital. The PLC’s Managua ticket of Eduardo Montealegre for mayor and Enrique Quiñónez as his running mate is a pebble in the government’s shoe. A PLC victory with that ticket would significantly set back the Ortega-Murillo strategic project, if not aborting it then at least slowing it down. How far is the presidential couple prepared to go to ensure the FSLN ticket of Alexis Argüello—a former world boxing champion and once-opponent of the Sandinista revolution—and journalist Daisy Torres wins the day in Managua?

The vice grip of the CENIs

If Montealegre and Quiñónez make it to the November 9 elections intact, they have a good shot at winning Managua. The city is a boiling pot of opposition to the government’s measures and Argüello, who has just spent four years as deputy mayor under Dionisio Marenco, doesn’t show signs of a fast learning curve. He and his running mate enjoy an enormous campaign bankroll but are no match for the leadership skills of slick banker-politician Montealegre, promoted by the Right as our savior from the current “madness,” and the bite of “tell it like it is” politician Quiñónez, who is straight out of the Alemán mold but now challenging his leadership to the delight of the Liberal grass roots.

The Ortega government has been going overboard to smear Montealegre since even before Alemán gave him the PLC spot on the Managua ballot, well aware that he was looking to use the mayoral post as a springboard to the presidency. While it appears probable that Montealegre’s hands aren’t entirely spotless in the scandalous bank bailout bond issue known as CENIs, the government has blamed him almost exclusively for all the illegalities committed.

This campaign is unprecedented in venom and cost. For months the population has been subjected to spots on several TV channels and radio stations around the country in which CPC spokespeople hold Montealegre and La Prensa director Jaime Chamorro responsible for “the most spectacular theft of the past 30 years,” charging them with stealing $600 million and claiming that “not even God can pardon” such corruption. Never clearly explaining how a newspaperman can have had anything to do with a government’s financial administration, or how the two single-handedly made off with all that money, the campaign instead details how many hospitals, schools, student desk-chairs, streets, bridges, roads, medicines, notebooks and all manner of other public resources could have been purchased with the money they stole.

As was analyzed in detail in a recent envío issue, there are two fundamental problems with the CENIs: the first is the multiple illegalities and under-the-table favoritism involved in their issuance, and the second is that the portion of the bonds issued illegally was not disqualified from renegotiation by either Treasury Minister Montealegre during the Bolaños government or the Ortega government’s Central Bank president earlier this year.

Montealegre claims he had nothing to do with their issue. With respect to disqualifying the fraudulent portion of the issue, isn’t that a presidential-level decision? While the lowered interest rate Montealegre negotiated with the two bond-holding banks was a bit better for the one he was personally connected with than for the other one, that’s not what he’s being excoriated for. On the few occasions the attacks against him involve anything other than hyperbole, his crime seems to have been cutting the roughly 16% interest rate on the bonds in half and doubling the repayment schedule from five to ten years. The argument is that extending the deadline increases the interest paid.

But if in fact renegotiating the debt is Montealegre’s only crime, someone needs to explain a) how that qualifies as “the robbery of the century” and b) how the government that inherited the bond issue could have avoided defaulting on the debt as initially issued.

The CENIs and their paradoxes

In January, while the Public Ministry, a national prosecutor’s office now wholly owned by the pact, was preparing its suit against Montealegre and others linked to the CENI case, President Ortega, who never tires of calling this bond issue a “criminal act,” paradoxically ordered the Central Bank to immediately renegotiate the entire bond payment again. Why not wait for the Public Ministry’s suit to be decided? Is it a foregone conclusion that none of the illegal issue will be overturned? In another paradox, Ortega heaped praise on Central Bank President Antenor Rosales at the end of the negotiations for having extended the deadline another two years and lowered the interest rates a couple more percentage points, which will reportedly increase the overall interest paid on the CENIs by $90 million. What’s sauce for the goose is apparently not sauce for the gander.

The campaign against Montealegre culminated—but didn’t let up—on July 7, when a special Public Ministry commission finally filed suit against him and Chamorro as well as 37 Alemán and Bolaños government officials and bank officials for fraud against the state and influence peddling in the CENI case. In yet another paradox, neither of the two previous Presidents who respectively are formally responsible for the bond issue in 2001 and their controversial first renegotiation in 2003, nor the heads of the banks that benefited from the purchase of the illegal bonds, nor even those responsible for the fraudulent bank failures of 1999 and 2000 that gave rise to the bond issue appear on the final list of accused. One of the banks that went under after granting unsecured loans to close associates of its board was Interbank, a Sandinista bank, and not even the Centeno Roque brothers, who broke that bank by taking out some $77 million in loans they never paid back, were on the list.

A clear objective

Is it unfair to attribute the Public Ministry’s suit to a concrete political-electoral objective? Is it suspect to see it as yet another piece of a massive smoke screen to cover up, probably forever, a chain of corruption that included the participation of political and economic leaders who are today in the government as well as the opposition?

The fact that the propaganda around the suit focuses so heavily on Montealegre in the run up to the electoral campaign suggests it isn’t; if he’s tried and convicted, he will also lose his political right to run for office. Furthermore, there’s a nearly unanimous appraisal that not everybody who’s on the list should be and not everybody who should be on the list is, and that all the names that do appear can’t hide the fact that there’s a clear fall guy.

Does the government
have the 47 votes?

A month after the suit was filed, the trial still hadn’t gotten underway. The appointed judge, who happens to belong to the FSLN, announced that “more time is required to go into the detailed analysis” of a complex case. But the real show stopper was that National Assembly representative Montealegre can’t be taken to court unless he’s first stripped of his immunity by the vote of a simple majority of the legislative body (47 representatives). According to the newspaper El Nuevo Diario, the FSLN now has 46 votes tied up through a “tangle of death threats, governmental cannon shots and dual nationalities of the legislators in question.”

In a speech in Matagalpa on July 11, President Ortega predicted—and he usually makes his predictions come true—that “just as the people mobilized to strip Alemán of his immunity, so will they mobilize to strip the immunity of this corrupt man so he’ll be tried.” Elisa McGregor, Montealegre’s wife, claims the government has offered to automatically withdraw the Public Ministry’s accusation and end the dirty radio and TV campaign if Montealegre renounces his candidacy. She argues that the delay in the trial is in expectation that Montealegre will accept, despite his repeated assurances that he will do no such thing.

Will the PLC bench in the National Assembly continue to support Montealegre or will Alemán risk the political costs of eliminating him from the race with open PLC support? Might he find a covert way to achieve the same goal? Will Quiñónez’s anti-Alemán discourse and the sordid rivalry between Montealegre and the former President end up with Alemán leaving the two men to twist in the wind?

Which objective is
most important?

The suit against Montealegre and the push to eliminate his immunity so soon before the official kick-off of the electoral campaign are further muddying the path to the elections. But which is the key objective of Ortega’s electoral strategy and which is the fall-back: getting Montealegre out of the game or seeing him lose to pugilist Alexis Argüello?

The current delegitimizing of the elections suits the FSLN to some degree, because it favors abstention, and abstention has always been the FSLN’s ally, given that its followers turn out with more discipline than others. The government is also counting on the fact that the abstention rate in municipal elections is always higher than in presidential ones. Acts of violence, such as perpetrated by CPC members against Liberals during the voter list verification process, could fuel abstention even more.

Will the CSE decide at the last minute to give the MRS its legal status back? The MRS is strong in Managua, so such a tactic could create even more last-minute confusion for voters and pull an important percentage of votes from Montealegre. Allowing both him and the MRS candidate to run would also help give the elections a veneer of legitimacy, allowing the government to parade the good example of rectification. Many things still remain to be seen.

The two marches in Managua

During all three governments between Daniel Ortega’s first and second times in office, the streets belonged to organizations and groups that sympathized with the FSLN. There was more homogeneity in the streets then, but also more violence.

Now the streets have begun to be disputed. MRS leader Dora María Téllez’s hunger strike in June was the catalyst for two sizable marches through Managua, the first on June 27 and the second on July 16. For the first time, the streets were occupied by heterogeneous groups from all social sectors, political stripes and civic expressions, and there was no violence.

A reported 20,000 people marched on July 16 in a demonstration rejecting the government policies called by the Civil Coordinator. As in the first demonstration, the march expressed an amalgam of demands by the organizations comprising the Civil Coordinator, as well as feminist organizations, the Nicaraguan Human Rights Center, the Movement for Nicaragua, which had called the first march, transport guilds and individual producers and residents. The pact and the corruption were loudly denounced; demands were made for transparency in the use of the Venezuelan cooperation funds; solidarity was expressed with the demands of the revolutionary songwriting Mejía Godoy brothers that the government not use their music; and humorous slogans and placards urged the government to change or go. The Managua police chief’s recommendation that the Coordinator call off the march because the streets of the capital were reserved throughout July for FSLN activities was interpreted as another sign of the National Police’s increasing alignment with the government’s excluding project.

The two events were important. While both could perhaps be viewed as a horizontal tower of Babel given the contradictory sociological and ideological plurality of those who participated, with the different interests and demands they represented, such marches have never been seen before.

At the end of the most recent one, the Civil Coordinator published a long proclamation detailing the changes it believes must be made in the current political, economic and social system, which it considers “excluding, contrary to the interests of the majorities, subordinated to the conditionalities of financial institutions and economic groups that… do not distribute the wealth in a just and equitable manner, generating poverty and inequalities.” It argues that these changes “will not come from above…; will not be produced by patronage or paternalistic politics, by party-izing state institutions …, or by speeches and threats denigrating those with different criteria and calling them ‘counterrevolutionaries’, or because we declare a parliamentary or a socialist system…, or amidst corruption…, or by maintaining institutions and other entities that sometimes don’t function or state branches that only benefit those with money and power. The changes won’t come if justice discriminately punishes the opponents of the government in office, those who don’t parrot the official discourse and those who are impoverished, while turning a blind eye on those who have more money and more power.” It then calls for “dialogue, concertation, national understanding so that by consensus we can change the system and the laws in the framework of the existing institutionality” and suggests that, “despite its important gaps,” the government’s proposed National Plan for Human Development “could be the starting point” for such an in-depth dialogue.

An article headlined “Arrogance without limits” in the once pro-Ortega newspaper El Nuevo Diario quotes the response to this call for a national dialogue by a politician who can safely be assumed to speak for Daniel Ortega. Gustavo Porras, president of the National Economic and Social Planning Council (CONPES), national secretary of the National Workers’ Front of pro-FSLN union confederations; secretary general of the public health workers union (FETSALUD) and a National Assembly representative on the FSLN bench, said, “Dialogue for what? The government doesn’t need dialogue.”

The article considers the possibility of civil society’s inclusion in any dialogue remote after Ortega’s recent disparaging remarks about civil society, noting that the government is only “interested in dialoging with private enterprise, as it has demonstrated in its meetings with the Superior Council of Private Enterprise (COSEP), and owners of maquilas [sweatshop assembly plants for re-export], which it has promised greater benefits.”

Who will the streets belong to?

The government’s first responses have been defensive: more verbal violence by the President and official media and a determination to recover control of the streets at all cost.

On July 31, opposition youth who announced they would protest the costly huge billboards featuring Daniel Ortega against a pink backdrop that have sprung up like mushrooms along all the main streets and highways were violently attacked by a group directed by FSLN activists who screamed furiously that the streets “belong to the people, only to them.”

That day the police acted with force to curtail the violence, but on other occasions they haven’t been so impartial. Will there be more marches? Will they spread from Managua? How will the police respond if the streets are fought over by an opposition beginning to find an expression in street protest and a government trying to recover them?

The best antidote

Which strategy will lead the government most directly to the “there” it aspires to reach? And which one will impede the FSLN’s strategic project from consuming the resistance?

There’s a growing impression that a strategy of fear is working most favorably for the government project. “People are developing a fear of speaking up, of saying things, of demonstrating, of participating in this or that activity,” says Vilma Núñez de Escorcia, president of the Nicaraguan Human Rights Center. “Some keep quiet, others lower their tone, others express their criteria with technical words to confuse their understanding and others, for example, big private enterprise, get on very well with the government, having seen that the best defense is not to make demands and to avoid annoying it.”

With a weak political opposition, a solid pact, institutions now in the hands of Ortega backers who are also administering the laws and a project of even greater control on the horizon, the only thing that could shift the balance is for people, society, to shake off that fear. “Everyone is the owner of their own fear,” said newsman Pedro Joaquín Chamorro, who was gunned down by Somoza’s National Guard because he spoke out and organized opposition to the dictatorship. Knowing how to channel those fears in the streets or in other arenas between now and November and from November on, depending on the electoral results, could be the best antidote.

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