|Central American University - UCA
Number 384 | Julio 2013
The challenge of the others
Scientists have demonstrated that social
intelligence was born and developed in our
species’ brains over our very long evolution
in response to the “challenge of the others.”
If true, this month offered a good example of
how the Ortega government uses social intelligence,
which is defined as the capacity to effectively navigate and
negotiate complex social relationships and environments.
It’s sad evidence on this new anniversary of the revolution.
It’s been a good while since Nicaragua was the focus of international news. This month two issues caught media attention abroad. One is a macro-project—the announcement that an interoceanic canal will be constructed across our territory—and the other a micro-protest—dozens of poor elderly people in a corner of Managua demanding a minimum old age pension who were subjected to a police cordon laced with repression.
Although at different informative scales, the two events are related in the national setting as they both express a way of governing and of understanding power: disdain for “the others.”
PassageAt 1:32 pm on Thursday, June 13, the executive bill to convert into law the Framework Concession and Implementation Agreement for the Construction in Nicaragua of a Grand Interoceanic Canal and Other Associated Infrastructure was passed in the National Assembly.
It is unlikely that any project of such magnitude has ever been approved so hurriedly in any other country. The legislation was sent on Friday, June 7, to a plenary session of the Assembly urgently called by presidential order. By Monday, June 10, the relevant parliamentary commissions, the majority of whose members belong to the governing FSLN party, had already issued their findings after barely a dozen hours of “consultations” in which two top government officials defended the concession and representatives of the country’s two private big business groupings voiced their various concerns. In the end, the commissions didn’t change so much as a comma.
Over the next two days professional associations, environmental organizations, journalists, experts in different fields and ordinary people, all of whom had been denied any direct access to parliament, voiced their concerns in the media. Pressured by the unappealable deadlines the executive branch imposed, they pointed out serious problems with the voluminous bill and tried to publicize some examples of its contents.
On Thursday, as the governing party’s legislative representatives were reading out the contents of the concession so fast they were unintelligible, some 150 people crowded around the National Assembly doors chanting “Ortega vendepatria!” (traitor to his country). On the plenary floor itself the 25 opposition representatives echoed the chant, then once the reading was concluded, presented their oppositions to the project, which were similarly ignored. With that they walked out of the session pledging to tour the country to explain the onerous concession’s negative aspects. That left 61 representatives to pass the law article by article after each was hurriedly reread: all but two members of the FSLN bench—one absent because he didn’t want to come, and one present who chose not to vote and was thus relieved of her seat days later—plus their three unconditional allies.
SigningAt 7:35 pm on Friday, June 14, President Ortega and Chinese businessman Wang Jing signed the Framework Agreement in an event broadcast over a national radio and television hookup. “The day has come to reach the Promised Land,” said Ortega. “Today is the day for prophesies being fulfilled,” said his wife, Rosario Murillo. “The world will change for us, we are going to bring more happiness, freedom and joy to the planet,” said Wang Jing.
The signed agreement was published in La Gaceta, the official government daily, three days later, on June 17, signaling its promulgation. In an unheard-of move, it also appeared in English in the same publication a week after that because one condition of the concession granted to Wang establishes that any controversy during the development of the canal project will be arbitrated in international tribunals in London... in English.
That’s the brief account of the seven days that shook Nicaragua and of events that will continue shaking it for a very long time, which we will surely be referring to and reflecting on more in the months to come.
He didn’t even Ever since his return to the presidential office in 2006, President Ortega has made the big business elite belonging to the Superior Council of Private Enterprise (COSEP) umbrella organization his firmest allies. He has met only with them to negotiate agreement on the economic laws: “as many as 69,” boasts the business class.
listen to his allies
But in the hurried process to pass the megacanal law, Ortega listened to no one. He didn’t consult the authorities of municipalities through which the canal would pass much less the populations of those municipalities; he didn’t consult the country’s universities, environmental experts, or even his own environmental adviser. In other words, he avoided any possibility of a “dissident” opinion.
Many other important actors were also kept out of the loop. The directors of Nicaragua’s Central Bank (BCN) weren’t even told that the Framework Agreement establishes the loss of sovereign immunity for all of the public institutions; in the BCN’s case stipu- lating that, should the need arise, it must use its international reserves to cover any lawsuit filed by the investor companies Wang Jing contracts. Of course, the Association of Private Banks wasn’t advised of that condition in the law either.
As for the business elite, they got only a couple of hours of cursory audience with a parliamentary commission. It was very different from other negotiations between the government and COSEP, which are often lengthy and involve a real give and take, only infrequently accompanied by certain tensions.
Coronel Kautz:Neither COSEP President José Adán Aguerri nor any other representative of the business elite was invited to the luxurious, very private signing by Ortega, Wang and Deputy Foreign Minister Manuel Coronel Kautz, the conces¬sion’s third signer. Named last year to head up the Grand Canal Authority, Coronel Kautz alone sat beside the presidential couple that night.
A perfect representative
At the end of the nineties he and his brother Ricardo founded the FSLN Business Bloc and got its members into important positions within the party apparatus. Manuel himself played a lead role during the FSLN’s negotiations with the PLC that resulted in the Alemán-Ortega pact, appearing in an infamous photo of that disastrous pact between caudillos.
As an engineer in charge of the revolution’s gigantic agroindustrial projects in the eighties, he distinguished himself by promoting them as the “solution” to Nicaragua’s backwardness and by designing and initiating them without getting people behind him. All of them ultimately failed. In that regard, he is a conspicuous representative of the unintelligent exercise of power, one who doesn’t understand or value “the challenge of others.”
The business elite’s concernsIn the June 10parliamentary commission consultation, Aguerri had not only presented various concerns about the law but also recommended several changes and additions posed in the intrests of the country, but obviously aimed at protecting COSEP members’ own interests. For example, he urged that the BCN’s sovereign immunity be respected “to protect the resources of all depositors, as well as the stability of the country’s macroeconomic policy.”
He also requested that the people who would be expropriated along the canal route and in areas of the eight sub-projects—the “other associated infrastructures”—also conceded to Wang be compensated for their lands at a “fair market price” rather than one based on the frequently undervalued cadastral value, as the framework agreement establishes. While this recommendation has an altruistic ring to it, it has its ironic twist. In collusion with their lawyers, many buyers, surely COSEP members among them, have falsified the amount they paid for the property in the deed registered with the cadaster office to avoid property taxes precisely based on that same “market price.”
Another concern Aguerri mentioned was that the concession “doesn’t determine the territorial limits in which the canal will be developed, which could delay other investment initiatives.” Here he could offer no concrete suggestion because the size of the canal and its sub-projects amounts to the concession of virtually the entire national territory.
He further proposed that the final agreement “incorporate a provision permitting cancellation of the concession in the case of an eventual incompliance by the concessionaire without causing onerous obligations to the country.” And finally, he requested seats on the Project Commission, a new authority created by the Framework Agreement, for his own organization and for academic and environmental organizations so they could participate in the development of these mega-investments.
Right up to the end, COSEP’s business leaders expected most if not all of their contributions to be in-cluded. Bayardo Arce, Ortega’s econ¬omic adviser, even said, “I imagine they’ll be taken into account.” But the law pushed through three days later didn’t include a single one. There wouldn’t even be a seat for COSEP or anyone else in this mega-business. Like so many others, COSEP was caught off guard by the high-speed dynamic followed for the drafting, ruling and legislative ratification of this agreement, with no consultation or national consensus. In short, without “the others.”
The government’s sidelining of the business elite has been one of the most notable aspects of this delicate national moment, given that these particular “others” were previously the only ones, taken into account and included, the ones given seats in over 50 government institutions and commissions.
Reactions on the High on the list of “others” whose perspectives and rights weren’t even given the cursory consultation granted COSEP are the indigenous and Afro-descendent peoples in Nicaragua’s South Atlantic Autonomous Region (RAAS), even though three of the four routes under consideration would hugely affect their ancestral territory, presumably starting with its expropriation. The nearly 407,000-hectare Rama and Kriol territory, comprising six indigenous communities and three Afro-descendent ones totaling 15,000 inhabitants, was finally delimited then titled in December 2009 and now has its own government. In August of last year, the territory’s authorities filed an unconstitutionality suit with the Supreme Court against Law 800, which created the Grand Canal’s legal system and the Grand Canal Authority, about which they hadn’t been consulted either. Since that suit has yet to be heard nearly a year later, they consider the national possibilities exhausted and have announced that they will request an injunction against the Nicaraguan State from the Inter-American Court of Human Rights.
They argue that the canal concession violates international instruments such as the International Labor Organ¬ization’s Convention 169, the UN Declaration on Rights of Indigenous Peoples and the Organization of American States’ Convention on Human Rights; 23 articles of Nicaragua’s Constitution and also Nicaragua’s Autonomy Statute, which explicitly establishes that indigenous communal lands “are indissoluble; they cannot be donated, sold, leased nor taxed, and they are eternal”… “even,” emphasizes Rupert Clair Duncan, president of the Monkey Point community, “by a judge, the South Atlantic Regional Council or the President of the Republic him¬self.”
As that territory’s inhabitants live off the land, forests and waters of their communities, their defense of their resources is fierce. Other RAAS community leaders have expressed solidarity with their position, but admit that their own base is more open to the canal, hoping it will provide jobs, trade and general development. They are mainly insulted by the failure to consult them or even so much as inform them about what this project will mean.
Meanwhile, the FSLN-dominated South Atlantic autonomous regional government endorsed the new concession law, and Brooklyn Rivera, eternal leader of Yatama, the regional Miskitu party, and currently a legislator on the FSLN’s National Assembly bench, voted in favor of it after paying lip service to coast concerns about expropriation of indigenous lands. Does that rubber-stamp endorsement by its loyal followers entitle the government to say it has consulted the coast?
Only “differences”? With the law approved and the concession signed, COSEP President Aguerri, still employing his customary soft-spoken style, announced that COSEP would file a suit of uncontitutionality with the Supreme Court. He referred concretely to the lack of respect for the right of private property represented by the land expropriation mechanisms, avoiding any mention of other major allegations of const¬i- tutional violations in the concession. Experts have counted as many as 30.
It’s frivolous to speak so soon of a rupture. Following the signing of the concession, Aguerri spoke only of “differences.” But barely two weeks later, another “difference” cropped up. The government turned a deaf ear to COSEP’s concerns about the “scanner law,” already approved by the FSLN bench and published in La Gaceta before COSEP learned about it. The law grants a 30-year concession to a Panamanian company to sell and operate scanning machines to search all cargo passing in and out through Nicaraguan customs and establishes a new tax on that same cargo to finance the fee charged by the company. The COSEP business leaders consider the 30 years excessive and the tax a violation of international trade laws, and are lobbying to get the law vetoed.
Venezuela financed the alliance and its harmonyThese “differences” Aguerri referred to are actually between Nica¬ragua’s traditional business class and the new economic power elite that has rapidly developed around Ortega since 2007. The latter group as the advantage of “unfair competition” because of all the institutional mechanisms they control or have privileged access to, and this growing competition makes them deaf to their supposed business allies.
So far this problem has been outweighed by the advantages of the Ortega-COSEP alliance, based largely on the hundreds of millions of dollars in Venezuelan cooperation. Part of these funds, used by Ortega at his own discretion, have financed the hand- outs—zero hunger, zero usury, roof plan and other government projects—and the transport, electricity and other subsidies that rein in any potential social conflict, providing the business class the best “business climate” imaginable. The copious Venezuelan money has also spared the business elite from having to contribute its fair share of taxes. These advantages plus the opening of the Venezuelan market to big traditional companies have helped maintain harmony over these years.
The refusal to respond to any of the government’s allies in the canal project makes the genesis of this megaproject seem even murkier. Why is there no space for any “others” in such a gigantic project that, by definition, should be a national effort? Will the business elite become sufficiently concerned about what some of the conditions established in the concession could mean for the country—and even more importantly for them—that it eventually balks at being such junior partners in the alliance?
Opening the door These “differences” lend significance to the public appearance in the post-concession scenario of Conservative politician and jurist Noel Vidaurre, legal defender of the business interests of the Pellas family consortium, which has become the country’s largest economic power over the past century. Vidaurre has been quoted in the media questioning the granting of “extra-governmental capacities to a single person, a gentleman from China unknown to Nicaraguans, who has come to decide what will be expropriated, what will be confiscated.” While he was at it, this one-time presidential candidate spoke of the need to create a political force that unites the whole nation.
to money laundering?
Vidaurre also pointed out another extremely important right the canal concession law grants to any investor Wang Jing invites to participate in this massive project. Article 19 of the Agreement establishes that the national or international financial entities that finance the canal or any of its other sub-projects need not register with the Superintendence of Banks and thus need not demonstrate the origin of the funds they invest in Nicaragua.
This lack of informative transparency and the rushed way the government has handled this project gives us every right to suspect that it is opening a door to money laundering operations.
Paul Oquist’s “show” After having ignored the opinions of any “others,” and after the national humiliation of seeing Wang Jing virtually take over the country in a murky process obscured even further at Ortega’s express volition, the government then kicked off its communication strategy to “sell” the megaproject. It was headed up by US-born Paul Oquist, a close collaborator with the FSLN government in the eighties and now the President’s Private Secretary for National Policies.
Oquist met with university rectors and began to tour the country with a Power Point presentation explaining the benefits the canal construction will bring Nicaragua. In it, Oquist makes the use of Lake Cocibolca for canal traffic appear compatible with the use of its water for irrigation, drinking and tourism, ignoring the lake’s actual characteristics. (See the “Speaking Out” section of this issue, in which engineer Victor Campos of the Humboldt Center refutes this assertion in detail.)
Jobs for everyone? The part of the show that forcasts the country’s economic takeoff is particularly appealing. It projects that by next year, based on nothing more concrete than the mere announcement of the canal, Nicaragua will already have an economic growth of 10.8%, which will rise to 15.1% by the following year. In this ideal scenario, Nicaragua will have the world’s third fastest economic growth between 2014 and 2018, with an annual average of 11.67%.
Another projection is that formal employment will grow 300% between this year and 2018, only five years from now. This will allegedly bring up to nearly two million the 600,000 people currently employed in the formal sector and thus paying into social security.
Jarquín challenges Edmundo Jarquín, MRS Alliance presidential candidate in 2006 and PLI Alliance vice presidential candidate in 2011, contrasted Oquist’s ideal figures for Nicaragua with real ones for the Panama Canal. He reminded us that “the current expansion of the Panama Canal has provided temporary employment for 12,000 people, ranging from unskilled laborers to machinists, engineers, economists, office employees, etc. and it is projected that only 4,000 of these will remain on the canal’s permanent payroll, bringing its employment roster up to 14,000 people. The temporary increase in direct employment for the expansion of Panama’s canal is only 1% of what Oquist claims will happen in Nicaragua.”
those employment figures…
While Jarquín admits that the Nicaraguan canal project is hypothetically eight times greater than the expansion of the Panama Canal—US$40 billion here compared to US$5 billion there—he argues that “the jobs that would be created only represent 8% of what the minister said. And we’re not talking about permanent jobs, which, by the same calculations, will only represent 2.5% of what he indicated.”
Jarquín, an economist, described these inflated employment figures as “verging on a mockery of Nicaraguans, especially the poorest ones, who are being offered the miracle of overnight happiness in this world.” But this mockery has gone over the edge in some municipalities, where FSLN political secretaries are going around signing up unemployed bricklayers with offers of work on the canal. Numerous people are already anxiously asking for the office “where they are offering jobs to build the canal.”
Those “others,” who represent the 44% of Nicaraguans living in poverty and the 70% with no fixed employment or a decent wage, may be looking forward to the “promised land,” but when reality disappoints them, they will see what those governing us use their social intelligence for.
And Nóffal Zepeda challengesCivil engineer Guillermo Nóffal Zepeda, project evaluator for the Organization of American States between 1966 and 1974, circulated a summary of his study on the “Financial viability of the Grand Canal of Nicaragua” to the national media. In it he compared the costs of the Nicaraguan projects to those of the Suez Canal and the Panama Canal, concluding among other things that “despite so many optimistic suppositions, no glimmer of financial viability can be seen for the Grand Canal. On the contrary, annual losses would range between US$3.047 billion and US$2.698 billion in the 36 years of its useful life…. Each Nicaraguan would have to subsidize the Grand Canal with close to US$500 annually over 40 years for the questionable pleasure of having an interoceanic canal. The Grand Canal is undoubtedly nothing more than a mega-swindle, either autogenous or induced, that will have very bad international repercussions for the whole country in the immediate future.” (A full summary can be found in Spanish on http://www.confidencial.
the canal’s financial viability
The “others” that are in fact being taken into account and have already begun to charge for initiating an array of studies or designing costly public $4 billion since the budget for the canal megaproject itself, according to Ortega and his partner and “brother” Wang, is US$40 billion—four times Nicaragua’s current gross domestic product—and it’s commonplace for studies for a project of such magnitude to cost 10% of the total investment.
Wang Jing created the HKND Group company in August 2012 just for the canal, and is its chairman and CEO—and reportedly its only stockholder. HKND’s spokesperson and “news director” is Ronald McLean Abaroa, former Bolivian dictator Hugo Bánzer’s foreign minister. McLean says the project’s financial, technical and environmental feasibility studies will take one to two years, which is incredibly fast given the complexity of such enormous works. He has also said Nicaragua isn’t risking anything because the cost of the studies will come out of Wang Jing’s own pocket, as if Wang has no personal interest in the results.
In a press conference in Beijing held in front of a gigantic screen showing a map of our country so distorted as to be unrecognizable andwith a fictitious canal route, Wang Jing claimed the construction will start in 2014 and take only six years.
The day the concession was issued to him in Managua, Wang introduced the team he has already contracted to accompany him, all of them from recognized firms. Bill Wild is the primary engineering consultant for Xin Wei, Wang’s own telecommunications company, and now his main adviser in HKND. David MacArthur is with the British firm Environmental Resources Management (ERM), which will do the environmental impact study. (The “Speaking Out” article in this edition reports on ERM’s endorsement of the Canada-Texas oil pipeline, which will transport highly contaminated shale oil). Stefan Matzinger is with McKinsey & Co., a global management counseling firm, and Sanghai-based Li Chuan is with McLarty & Associates, a Washington law firm whose president has counseled three US Presidents (Carter, G.W. Bush and Clinton). This latter company, originally Kissinger-McLarty Associates, and still boasting John D. Negroponte as one of its principals, will be in charge of lobbying to attract investors.
The “old people’s” protest If this fast-paced series of events between June 7 and 14 wasn’t enough to keep people off balance, the “old people’s protest” heated up just as we were starting to learn more details about the contents of the Ortega-Wang agreement and to contemplate its social, political, economic, cultural, environmental, geopolitical and other consequences for the country in the coming years.
On Monday, June 17, a couple of hundred elderly men and women peacefully occupied the Nicaraguan Social Security Institute (INSS) building, demanding their right to what is called a “reduced” old age pension, while a similar number gathered in the streets outside the building to support that demand.
Those occupying the building were over 60 years old—some well over—and had worked in formal jobs for part of their life and thus paid into the social security system, but not long enough to complete the 750 weeks (over 14 years) of contributions established by law to earn a “full” pension. Their legal right to the smaller pension is still recognized in the INSS social security law, but a 1994 presidential decree cancelled it from the regulations of that law, alleging INSS’ financial difficulties.
Today’s government holds the three previous neoliberal ones respons¬ible for having snatched away that right, established by the Sandi¬nista government in the eighties, but has done nothing in over six years to re-institute it for those affected.
How many are there and Social security expert Manuel Israel Ruiz argues that a census needs to be done to find out how many people are really in this situation. He estimates some 15,000 and calculates they should receive an average of about 1,700 córdobas (approximately $70) a month.
how much are they claiming?
Ruiz believes INSS could handle that outlay with the income it receives from the pension quotas paid in every month. Some economists have said it could also be covered by the current collection of more taxes than anticipated in the national budget, as documented in official figures.
Nonetheless, the Ortega government decided not to resolve the problem and, like previous governments, is continuing to use the INSS reserves for investments never transparently audited. But in late 2007 the pro-Ortega unions grouped in the umbrella National Workers Front (FNT) helped organize those demanding the reduced pension, who that same year formed the “National Unity of Older Adults” (UNAM). The FNT also financed some of their activities. UNAM’s members have done everything possible to defend their right, including marches, declarations, meetings and even hunger strikes.
Finally last year, after meetings with government officials and FSLN legislators that never came to anything but promises and calls for patience, several thousand of these elderly people—the government claims some 8,000—began receiving not the pension to which they are legally entitled but a somewhat lower “solidarity bonus” that comes out of the Venezuelan cooperation resources and is not guaranteed by law, so could in theory be stopped at any moment.
Legal pension no, Equating a legal pension earned with a bonus given as a “gift” is one of the characteristics of the relationship this government is determined to establish in response to the “challenge of the others,” particularly when those others are impoverished people with serious needs, a category that covers a significant majority of Nicaraguans. These people are offered handouts before they start collectively claiming their rights—or even once they have done so, as in the case of the elderly. It’s no accident; it’s a model, lauded every day by the government in its speeches, billboards, messages and t-shirts as “Christian, socialist and solidary.”
charity bonus yes
That model turns subjects of rights into the objects of charity. It has generalized the perception in Nicaragua that a government’s obligations to its citizenry are in fact favors generously granted by the ruler, even though the population is fulfilling its own obligations such as paying taxes.
This twisted perception encourages an attitude of submissive gratitude—albeit at times mixed with complaint and even fear. What it doesn’t do is build the kind of consciousness that characterizes a democratic society, much less an empowered, responsible one. It’s much more the dynamic of the division of labor in a Christian capitalist society: the rich get on with accumulating capital while the shepherd throws crumbs to his needy “flock.” This paternalist “charitable” model is only unlike the welfare aspect of the neoliberal model by the magnitude of its handouts. Neither actually respects the poor and both exclude them from participating in the economic model and from any decision-making in their own governance.
A retiree with the right to an old-age pension goes freely to the INSS offices once a month to pick up the pension check without worrying that it might be withheld or abolished, but a “bonus” granted by a government that expects to be thanked for it isn’t guaranteed in any law. Thousands of teachers, nurses and other poorly paid government workers have been in the same predicament for several years. They earn a pittance, but the generous ruler informs them each month that they can go stand in line in the banks to receive their “solidarity bonus” as compensation for not being guaranteed a salary hike in the state budget.
Respect, admiration, compassion, caringUNAM’s takeover of the INSS building was preceded by marches of third-age people in Managua and other departmental capitals that included declarations of their determination to finally get not just the bonus but the pension to which they have a right.
Those who, to use their own words, “stepped up their protest” by taking over the INSS building and surrounding streets on June 17 were immediately confronted by the police. The demonstrators outside were cordoned off with security fencing, and the building’s water and electricity were cut off.
The news coverage attracted interest and produced admiration as well as compassion. Nicaraguan culture is very respectful and caring of its “grandmothers and grandfathers.” The population feels a special sensitivity toward the challenge of these “others.” Many people worried about them: “They have nothing to eat and no water…” “What if they get sick in there?” That concern produced active solidarity: dozens of young people went to the site the next day with food and water, wanting to meet the protestors and offering to accompany them. Now there were many more in the streets. They spent the night in vigil together.
#ocupaINSSOn Wednesday still more young people arrived, and the police began responding more aggressively. They prevented food and water from getting to the elderly and repressed the younger people coming to show their solidarity.
There were injuries that day and various young people were arrested, spending hours in El Chipote’s punishment cells and subsequently reporting that they had been threatened with torture. At dawn the next day the police removed all the occupiers from the building, telling them they were going to take them first to hospitals and then to their homes. The occupiers offered no resistance but the next day were back in the street protest, now joined by still more younger people.
By then something had happened that was very new for Nicaragua but increasingly common in other countries: the hashtag #OcupaINSS appeared in the Internet social networks. In response to the call, students from various universities and youths from other sectors arrived by the hundreds to support the protest. They brought food, water, mattresses, blankets, companionship and music. Medical students supplied medicines and examined and treated the elderly protesters. The street turned into a gathering place for two generations. On Friday, a concert of popular musical groups cheered up the night.
“A rightwing conspiracy” The government’s social intelligence was put to the test by the challenge of these unusual “others,” the elderly civically claiming their right and young civically supporting them. Both UNAM and the youth insisted that the demand was social and the solidarity humanitarian. But since the bishops, business elite and some political figures were calling on the government to dialogue on the issue, the government felt it was losing control so ordered an excessive show of force.
On Thursday, June 20, INSS President Roberto López called the pro-government unions to an event to show them that INSS doesn’t have the resources to respond to the reduced pension. While he was at it he inflated the number of pensioners eligible for such a pension to nearly 59,000.
That same day, FSLN legislative representative and FNT leader Gustavo Porras reiterated to an equally pro-government audience that the pensioners’ demand was aimed at bankrupting INSS because the third-agers were being used by a “rightwing conspiracy.” He angrily shouted that “those who believe they can make Arab springs and the Turkish plaza in Nicaragua are mistaken!” Porras laid out the solution cooked up to counteract the alleged “conspiracy”: there would be a massive demonstration the following Monday “to defend the government of Comandante Daniel Ortega.” His reaction was way out of proportion to what was happening in the street and can only be interpreted as a symptom of fear or paranoia.
Official vandalismBut Monday apparently was neither soon enough nor forceful enough for some. With more young people arriving at the protest site and the elders showing no sign of backing off their demand, they decided on another “solution.” In the predawn hours of Friday, while some 40 elders were asleep in the street accompanied by some 60 young people, hundreds of hooded individuals armed with truncheons and iron bars showed up. Reportedly organized by the government as para¬militaries, they were driven to the site in trucks belonging to the Managua mayor’s office. They lit into the youths, dispersing them with blows, stripping the clothes from some of them, threatening the females with rape and robbing them of whatever they were carrying: documentation, cell phones, watches, wallets, musical instruments and even seven vehicles. All this happened before the eyes of the National Police officers still at the scene, who did nothing to stop the vandalism.
In its report on these events, the Nicaraguan Human Rights Center (CENIDH) condemned “the evident collusion by the National Police, the Managua mayor’s office and the central government aimed at silencing the social protest, a behavior that does not encourage social peace and demon¬- strates the authoritarian style of a government that has instituted a zero tolerance policy toward social demonstrations that don’t revolve around its circle of power.”
This episode’s balance sheet
On Monday, in response to Porras’ call, government sympathizers joined thousands of state employees from Managua and various departments obliged to participate in the march “in support of Daniel” and “to back the just struggle of the older adults,” which was something of a contradiction in terms.
The two main UNAM leaders were obliged to appear on the rally podium and the following day new negotiations were initiated with government officials, who again told them that there are no resources to respond to their demand, but that the issuing of “solidarity bonuses” would be extended to a greater number of pensioners. When this issue went to press, the old people were still quietly waiting for the reduced pension that mobilized them with such endurance to finally be granted through the negotiations. Meanwhile, they achieved at least part of their demand by obliging the government to sit down at the negotiating table with them.
The youth who participated in #OcupaINSS and were terrorized in the middle of the night have been marked by their experiences and they’re indignant. Without meaning to, they got the government to demonstrate its intolerance once again in a show of force that only expresses weakness and fear.
The perseverance demonstrated for years by the UNAM members and the government’s “handout” style may lead to new protests by the elderly with the same demand. And the indignation stirred up among a sector of Nicaragua’s youth may result in a better organization of their energies, which were previously either still asleep or at best dispersed. What is not in doubt is that this month has been packed with events that only time will mature...
Will the canal ever be built? The main event unquestionably is and will continue to be the Ortega-Wang mega-concession. Will it become a mega-project or will it turn out to be only a mega-swindle? The lack of seriousness with which the canal concession has been handled so far has led many to suspect that the project isn’t for real, that Wang is merely a front for others with other objectives.
The canal may never be built. But the signed concession and approved concession law, with all the giveaways contained therein, the turbidity in which the project was born and the irresponsible way the government is defending it suggest what will happen and in fact already is happening: mega-businesses, a squandering of resources on studies that have been done before, debts, ghost salaries and contracts, and eventually confiscations and expropri¬ations, particularly but not only of the indigenous territories in the southern Caribbean region… Who knows how many other things will happen before the dust settles?
MRS legislative representative Víctor Hugo Tinoco’s sum-up of what has already happened, presented in the sidebar on the previous pages, suggests the determination of Ortega, his family and his closest business cohort to consolidate virtually total political and economic control of the country and its entire population. Whether or not they achieve it will depend on many factors still beyond our imagination. It will also depend on how each of us uses our own social intelligence in responding to the challenge of the others.
Pathetic evidenceWith ever increasing certainty and scientific evidence, we now know that “the challenge of others” contributed more than any other factor to the development of social intelligence in the human species. In the long trajectory of our evolution as a species, intelligence formed in our brains, developed and continues to develop through the relationships we establish with others. Social intelligence allows us either to understand and comprehend others or to manipulate and trick them. This month the government continued giving pathetic evidence of its preference.
Other voices of opposition to the canalThe hopes inspired by this age-old dream of Nicaraguans is battling with general skepticism about the government and its exceedingly questionable handling of the process so far on the one hand; and major concerns about the effects on the environment, national sovereignty, international relations, land rights and people’s right to decide and be informed on the other. The skepticism or outright opposition ranges across the political, age, gender and class spectrums in both urban capitals and remote rural areas, especially the Caribbean region. Here are a few examples, starting with the angriest and most collective, as its signers represent a sizable array of organizations at both extremes of the political spectrum.
National sovereignty: On June 12, the day before the canal concession was passed in the National Assembly, 20 social and political movements in the country signed a Manifesto for the Defense of National Sovereignty titled “Nicaragua is not for sale.” Among other things it said: “The Ortega regime is attempting to carry out the most abject handover of the national territory for the satisfaction of its voracious appetite, to the detriment of the strategic interests of the entire nation and all its citizenry… Ortega is not only exceeding all previous atrocities committed by him, but is also exceeding the sum of all the worst acts committed against national interests. The Chamorro-Bryan Treaty (1914) was not for a canal to be constructed, but on the contrary, so that none would be constructed in Nicaraguan territory. The bill Adolfo Díaz sent to the Assembly in the 21st century is also not to construct a canal, but to create an enclave within the Nicaraguan State that would be the property of the dictator, using a despicable straw man for the purpose, an unknown individual with a briefcase company registered in the Cayman Islands, who has neither the capacity nor the money to undertake any work of even a medium scope.”
Twelve days later more than 100 Nicaraguans of different leanings, but all recognized for their contributions to the country, released another Manifesto in defense of national sovereignty. After detailing the onerous conditions under which the canal concession was granted to Wang Jing, it concluded: “This demonstrates that what reigns in Nicaragua is an authoritarian system that is subjecting the institutions to the arbitrariness of unconsulted decisions regarding the entire nation and its future, with no consideration for the constitutional order, current laws or sovereign national interests…. A second interoceanic canal in America would be of undeniable utility for international trade, but globalization and trade in no way mean that countries must renounce their sovereignty and national wealth, handing them over to foreign companies or countries. On the contrary, governments that respect national dignity defend their sovereignty and jealously protect their ecological patrimony and environment, and safeguard them when inserting themselves into globalization. We call on all Nicaraguans, without exceptions, to become aware of this unprecedented outrage against our country’s integrity, and to unanimously raise our voice of protest against and condemnation of the Ortega-Wang Jing treaty, demanding its immediate annulment.”
Víctor Hugo TinocoIn an interview with La Prensa, Sandinista Renovation Movement legislative representative and former deputy foreign minister Víctor Hugo Tinoco, said: “Ortega is granting himself a concession through the canal law. The right to build a canal, which is a right of the Nicaraguan people and the State of Nicaragua, has become the right of a Chinese partner of Daniel Ortega. Ortega the President is granting Ortega the businessman the right to decide whom to sell the right to build a canal in Nicaragua to and when…. The law says that the State gives Wang Jing-Ortega the right to sell the concessions, so they can come and decide: ‘Okay, we can’t build a canal right now, but we are going to build an airport for the canal over there by Bluefields.’ And they don’t have to ask anyone’s permission, don’t pay taxes and don’t have to put anything out to public tender. And Ortega, as owner of the concession, charges the company that does it. Next they can build a highway and, as before, they’ll apply all the advantages of the canal law. That’s the problem: the law says the concession can be sold in pieces…. The deal is that the concession moves to private hands and begins to be sold off for some lesser projects. It’s most likely that the canal itself won’t ever be built.”
In May 2007, following a presentation by the director of the National Forestry Institute on the urgency of defending Nicaragua’s forests, the then-recently inaugurated President Ortega said: “We can’t risk Lake (Cocibolca) for all the gold in the world. There won’t be enough gold in the world to make us yield on this, because the Great Lake is Central America’s greatest water reserve, and we’re not going to put it at risk with a megaproject like an interoceanic canal.”
Center for Research In a forum titled “The Great Lakes and Río San Juan Watershed: Backbone of Nicaraguan Development,” held a year ago July, when talk about the construction of an international canal was beginning to be heard more frequently, Salvador Montenegro, director of the Center for Research on Aquatic Resources (CIRA) said, “Unfortunately we still haven’t been able to convert our hydric wealth into prosperity, into economic and social benefit. This obliges us to put ourselves in the hands of others who make the decisions, which is dangerous because our allies have strategic and commercial interests, which is not solidarity. And if the Chinese haven’t shown any discretion in transforming and destroying their own country, they will hardly have it in other countries. It is up to us, the nationals, to worry about sustainability. My opinion on which project is more viable to comply with sustainability is the irrigation one, and to irrigate we need good quality water. We need to take care of Nicaraguans’ water and we have both the capability and the obligation to sustain the quality of our water. Quality is the most important characteristic we need to pay attention to, because any ship floats on dirty water, even on oil, but contaminated water is useless for irrigation and for the most important use, which is to satisfy thirst. And today drinking water has the highest prices.” (An account of this forum can be found on http://www.gwp.org/Global/GWPCAm_Files/MemoriaForoCuenca_69.pdf)
on Aquatic Resources
US sensibilitiesArturo Cruz, Jr., the current Ortega government’s first ambassador to the United States and now a professor at the INCAE business school, said this about the canal concession in an interview by El Nuevo Diario: “Nicaragua has been in the immediate US sphere of influence and regardless of whether the Chinese company [HKND] is private or not, it still has the characteristics of belonging to a citizen from continental China, Wang Jing, who probably has indirect links to the formal power structure. So that sensitive point has to be managed well, given that a project of this magnitude being in its immediate sphere of influence will not cease being a relevant issue for the United States…. Down the road, I believe it most likely that the Chinese government will invest in this project along with other sovereign funds, if in fact the project makes sense. Given the issue of US sensitivity, I have heard the Chinese company’s outside consultants insisting on the importance of diversity of the nationality of the investors.”
Arturo Cruz, Jr.
Lack of consultationEduardo Montealegre, former minister of several portfolios during the Alemán and Bolaños presidencies and currently a legislator on the PLI Alliance bench, said the following in an interview for La Prensa: “If President Omar Torrijos decided to hold a referendum to learn the population’s opinion before committing to invest between US$5 and $10 million for the expansion of the Panama Canal, which they own, how are we going to accept that the consultation in our country is done in only one afternoon and then it’s approved? You don’t do this with someone [Wang Jing] who says he has experience just because he has an address in Hong Kong. Bankers, lawyers, engineers and environmentalists are involved in the largest project in the world—the metro for the city of Doha, Qatar, which will cost US$35 billion—and they have been consulted over ten years and there’s still another ten to go before they lay the first stone. So it’s time to stop deceiving the Nicaraguan people.”
Land rightsA communiqué by these two directors of the Bluefields Creole communal government accused President Ortega of violating the Rama Kriol people’s ancestral rights because “with the concession to an international company for the construction of the interoceanic canal, he is contravening fundamental rights of the indigenous and Afro-descendent peoples who inhabit and are owners of these territories…. We urge the national, regional and municipal authorities to take the path of dialogue and consensus to achieve the development we all long for.”
Nora Newhal and
Bayardo Prudo and Quoted in an article in El Nuevo Diario, Bayardo Prudo, president of the Indigenous Movement of the South Atlantic Autonomous Region (MIRAAS), said, “We are aware that this canal will be for the development of our country, but our people are suspicious because they don’t know how it will benefit us and how we indigenous people will participate in the project. Many community members are even afraid because they believe they’re going to expropriate the territory the same government demarcated.” In the same article, two weeks after the concession law was signed, Monkey point resident Henry Presida put the same concerns in more concrete terms: “It’s true that there are people in favor of the project, because they believe they’re going to have a job, but many of us know the project could do away with our natural resources. We can get along without a job, but we have a place to go hunt and fish and we live off that, which is the surest thing in our hands.”