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  Number 390 | Enero 2014
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Nicaragua

The Army is the final piece in Ortega’s political Project

The mind behind the constitutional changes was also behind the changes to the Military Code. The two reforms are mutually complementary; dependent on each other like links in a chain. Aligning the Army with his political project was President Ortega’s final step in articulating his power strategy.

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The changes to the Military Code were pushed through with an urgency very similar to what we saw with the constitutional reforms. After extremely limited consultations and with virtually no changes, the constitutional reforms were passed on December 10—paradoxically International Human Rights Day—by a vote of 64 to 26 in the first of the two required legislatures. With the National Assembly back from vacation, they were definitively approved in the second legislature on January 28 and 29, first in a vote for the package as a whole by the same 63 Sandinista legislators plus one Liberal turncoat. The 24 members of the Independent Liberal Party Alliance again cast their protest nay vote then walked out, leaving the Sandinista bench+1 to rubber stamp the reforms article by article, a process they had concluded by the following day.

The military reforms were first announced after President Ortega got an absolute parliamentary majority in the allegedly fraudulent 2011 elections, but he didn’t send his changes to the National Assembly until November 12 of last year. What has most caught people’s attention is the breakneck speed by which changes with such potentially important consequences were approved. On December 13, hours before the parliamentary vacation, it was announced that the bill had been reviewed and ruled on—only by the FSLN representatives and with no change whatever—and was ready for parliamentary approval. With the Army’s top commanders giving the changes their nod, the FSLN legislators had considered that no other sector need be consulted. On January 30, the day after dispatching the constitutional reforms, they passed the new Military Code.

Each reform is indispensable to the other and incomprehensible alone. Both reveal the scope of Ortega’s political project, whose only missing piece up to now was the military component.

What the Military Code says

What’s the most relevant aspect of the new Military Code? On January 26, retired Lieutenant Colonel Irving Dávila, a jurist, presented a detailed legal analysis of it in Managua. The study, which compares the previous code and the new one, examining the articles eliminated, added and changed, was sponsored by Nicaragua’s Institute for the Study of Strategies and Public Policies (IEEPP) and financed by the US Democratic Party’s National Endowment for Democracy.

The following are some of the various worrying aspects he highlighted.
 “National Security,” a concept that evokes such negative memories in Latin America, is now added to the Army’s essential task of national defense, appearing dozens of times in the code’s text.
 Up to now the military has institutionally responded to the Ministry of Defense, but this will now shift to the presidency, putting the Army’s “political management” directly in the Presi¬dent’s hands.
 Telecommunications and the radio spectrum are now the Army’s responsibility, as they are considered part of “national security.”
 Active military officers may now hold posts in the executive branch of government and the Army may recall retired officers to its ranks to create “reserve units,” without specifying what they will be asked to do.
 The Army’s Defense Information Department will now “specialize in strategic state information,” which could open the doors to political espionage.
 And the military career can now be for as long as 40 years, with retirement at age 65, which suggests that Ortega doesn’t trust the new generations.
“One way or another,” predicts Dávila, “the young generations are going to react.”

The end of a 20-
year achievement

It’s also worrying that the new Code opens the possibility of the Army chief remaining in his post indefinitely at the President’s discretion, as it eliminates the fixed term for that position. The only saving grace, if indeed it is that, is that the President may fire him “for disobedience.”

The old Military Code, approved in 1994, a crucial period in the Army’s transition process, set the term for such a sensitive post at five years. Rather remarkably, the succession of military chiefs has taken place like clockwork the past 20 years: the current chief, General Julio Cesar Avilés, succeeded General Omar Halleslevens, now Ortega’s Vice President; Halleslevens succeeded General Javier Carrión; Carrión succeeded General Joaquín Cuadra and Cuadra succeeded General Humberto Ortega, the President’s brother, who had headed up the army between 1979 and 1995.

The deliberate omission of a regulated period for directing the military institution “turns the Army chief into a political client of the President of the Republic,” commented Dávila, who has no doubt that Ortega prepared the changes to the code with the “complicity” of the Army chiefs of staff.

The retirement of Balladares, the Army’s number two man

The hegemonic control Ortega already had over all the other state institutions now includes the Army. That control was in evidence even before the National Assembly’s approval of the code.

In December, with the country in festive mood, which is always the time when important things get pushed through relatively unnoticed in Nicaragua, it was reported that Major General Óscar Balladares, head of the Chiefs of Staff, was retiring at 52. It had been reported the previous month that he planned to join the interoceanic canal project’s technical commission. With indisputable experience gained in his brilliant 33-year army trajectory, Balladares was virtually a shoe-in to succeed General Avilés as Army chief on February 21, 2015, when the latter’s five-year term ends. After days of rumors and official silence, the Army retired him and Ortega named him as presidential adviser on infrastructure issues with ministerial rank. It was an inexplicable removal and shift to irrelevant tasks, although with a substantial economic upgrade: a very good military officer’s pension and a very good minister’s salary.

Military security expert Roberto Cajina, who was an adviser to General Humberto Ortega in the eighties, expressed “astonishment” at the replacement of Balladares—who he said “knows the guts of the Army’s operational nature from all the way back when he was a guerrilla fighter”—by General Óscar Mojica, who Cajina referred to as a “bureaucrat” general. According to Cajina, “the most dangerous aspect” of Balladares’ removal is Ortega’s “political intervention” in a process that for the past 20 years has been decided by the Army high command with “a relative degree of autonomy.”

Cajina considers Mojica a “wild card” he can play if needed. Ever since Daniel Ortega took office in 2007, Mojica has directed the Institute for Retirement Provision and Military Security, which manages the officers’ pension funds and to that end makes large-scale investments both domestically and abroad.

A serious rupture

Having no political confidence in Balladares, Ortega seems to have removed him from the line of succession to keep Avilés in his post as long as it suits the President. The analysis of Roberto Orozco of IEEPP, another security expert, is that “with Balladares, Ortega is retiring the last tropista from the Army’s general command, leaving it in the hands of intelligence and counterintelligence officers,” who have been dominating the decision-making command structures in recent years. “They respond more to Ortega’s interests,” Orozco believes. In the Army, the term “tropista” refers to officers in the on-the-ground running of the Army, the ones closest to the troops.

All other experts or retired officers who have dared to speak up consider that both Ortega’s decision to halt Balladares’ ascent and the contents of the new Military Code have broken the chain of command in the Army and provoked a serious rupture that damages its institutionality. Thus culminates Ortega’s siege of the Army of Nicaragua.

Humberto Ortega’s tense
retirement nearly 20 years ago

Daniel Ortega’s relations with the Army have experienced ups and downs before. The FSLN’s defeat at the polls in 1990 also meant the end of the US-financed and directed war of the eighties. One of the most important of the many consequences of that largely unexpected and drastic sea change was the massive reduction of the Sandinista Popular Army (EPS).

The plan to slash the EPS, which at the height of the war had up to 100,000 troops in its permanent units (two-year conscripts and professional officers), reserve units (volunteers) and militia units, was designed to be implemented over a five-year period but was done in barely two-and-a-half years, leaving only 14,500 in the military ranks when the smoke cleared. Today there are just over 12,000, making it the smallest army in Central America.

The tense and complex decisions—which General Ortega assumed—about which professionals should stay and which should be retired left many scars that have never fully healed, both because the most committed hard-fighting personnel tended to be the ones put out to pasture and because many of those in the lower officer ranks were abandoned to their fate and still live an economically precarious existence.

On the heels of that tense process came an even more critical moment. Without attempting any prior agreement with the EPS top command, President Chamorro announced in front of the troops on September 2, 1993, during the celebration of Army Day, that she wanted General Humberto Ortega to retire.

Immediately after the event, General Ortega responded in a brief press conference that his retirement date depended on the term established in the new Military Organization Law, as the now reformed code was called then, which he had just delivered to the President to send on to the National Assembly for debate and passage. Verily as he was speaking, then-opposition leader Daniel Ortega and the President who had unseated him engaged in the following heated public exchange. “You don’t own Nicaragua,” barked Ortega. “I am the President and no one raises their voice to me,” responded the unruffled 64-year old Chamorro. To her credit it must be said that from the minute she was elected she had elegantly withstood the vociferous public pressures exerted by the US government to dismiss General Ortega. Although the correlation of forces were clearly not on her side to attempt it, she triggered the first split in the 14-party coalition on whose ticket she ran by publicly announcing in her inaugural speech that Ortega would remain.

The crisis that began that day with such high-voltage tension between Chamorro and Daniel Ortega rocked the alliance between the executive branch and the Army that had been the axis of Nicaragua’s very fragile transition. To be more exact, the alliance was between Humberto Ortega and Antonio Lacayo, the President’s trusted son-in-law and powerful presidential minister. The tension only increased over the ensuing months, but Lacayo and General Ortega managed to get through it, conserving what little national stability that could be aspired to in a country politically polarized and economically paralyzed by the inappropriately harsh structural adjustment programs the Chamorro government and the International Monetary Fund insisted on imposing, denying this impoverished country the sorely needed and much publicized “peace dividend.”

“What had to be done”

Level-headedness won out and two strategic results were obtained. The first was that Chamorro didn’t cave in to pressures from the US ultra-Right, which was demanding the retirement not only of General Ortega but of the entire EPS chiefs of staff, and even elimination of the army itself, in favor of the “Costa Rican model.” The second was that the Army’s modernization and the initiation of its transition from answering to a party to answering to the Constitution was guaranteed.

Humberto Ortega voluntarily retired on February 21, 1995, the anniversary of Augusto César Sandino’s assassination by National Guard forces on the orders of US-educated General Anastasio Somoza García. Ortega was succeeded by Major General Joaquín Cuadra Lacayo, selected from the eligible officers by President Chamorro the previous December. Cuadra was both a scion of Nicaragua’s elite and a guerrilla fighter with a distinguished list of actions to his credit, who after the FSLN took power was promoted to general and appointed Army chief of staff. He was one of the leaders responsible for the military defeat of the counterrevolution, which enjoyed broad consensus in the country.

Upon retiring, General Ortega stated: “What some in Nicaragua wanted isn’t what was done; what some abroad wanted isn’t what was done; what I wanted isn’t what was done. What was done was what had to be done.”

The business army

Even before General Ortega’s departure, a strong debate took place in the National Assembly about the new Military Organization Law, the result of a difficult agreement between the executive and the EPS.

While its defenders stressed that the military institution would have a regulatory law for the first time in Nicaraguan history, business sectors and opposition politicians argued that it would create a “privileged caste” and “a State within the State” by authorizing the newly named Army of Nicaragua to own businesses, ostensibly to finance its health and retirement plan without burdening the national budget. By then, General Ortega, benefiting from Finance Minister Emilio Pereira’s neoliberal fiscal policy, had already built up a military-agro¬industrial-commercial complex whose weight was beginning to be felt in the national economy.

During the debate, General Ortega told the National Assembly that the Army’s businesses “do not have major weight in this country’s overall financial economic activity.” His successor, however, declared to a Costa Rican newspaper that “the volume of these business’ funds is considerable compared to the size of the Nicaraguan economy.”

Passage of the first law nothing
like the passage of its reform

After intense controversy in the media and consultations with different social and political sectors, the National Assembly approved the overall Military Organization Law in July 1994 by 44 votes to 37. That was followed by an even more intense article-by-article debate in the ensuing days, with the discussion of the first two articles alone lasting 16 hours. It was almost the complete opposite of what happened this time around, when it only took a few minutes for the FSLN’s parliamentary majority to skip from one article of the reformed code to the next, approving them all without debate or modification, and without justifying their contents.

The military code in place by the end of 1994 defined the Army as an institution with a “national, a-party, apolitical and professional nature,” whose strategic guidelines and direction would be subject to civilian power. The year ended with evidence that the military body was also now a real player in the business world.

Although the Army never forgot its Sandinista origins and its subordination to civilian power was relative, this was an important advance and the population genuinely began to perceive it as a national army that belonged to everyone, not to one party.

Ortega’s siege of the Army
began the day he took office

That’s how things remained for the rest of Chamorro’s term in office and those of Alemán and Bolaños. Those were the years in which Daniel Ortega and the FSLN governed “from below,” or at least from the opposition, since their actions had less and less to do with those below. Both Alemán and Bolaños wanted to impose other chiefs on the Army when the moment for succession came along, but the Army refused to allow any departure from the orderly succession laid out in the law, thus establishing both its professionalism and its autonomy.

Daniel Ortega began his siege of this institution the day he returned to government, at his public inauguration ceremony on January 10, 2007. As retired General Hugo Torres recalls, “From the first moment, while swearing in the heads of the Army and the Police, he publicly reminded both armed bodies of their revolutionary and Sandinista origins, as if any of those officers were either ashamed or ignorant of that origin. His well-defined intention was to send a message about what position the Army and Police had to have in the new government, and he made sure that not only they but also the entire country heard it. Since then, he hasn’t missed a chance to demonstrate his desire to control both armed institutions, distorting their nature as institutions by subordinating them to his political project.”

Army-Ortega clash at the start

Days before showing his intentions in his inaugural ceremony, while Ortega was selecting his Cabinet members, envío learned and reported in its January 2007 issue that he had decided to name Marisol Castillo to head the Defense Ministry, which had been created in 1994 to institutionalize the military’s subordination to civilian power. This caused unhappiness among the Army’s top commanders, among them its then chief, General Omar Halleslevens, as Castillo is married to former Colonel Lenín Cerna, who was head of State Security during the eighties and retired from the Army in 2000.

The Army’s veto of Castillo did not please the presidential couple, which felt its nascent national authority being questioned. For weeks, Ortega kept his distance from the upper army echelons and even made a few public declarations revealing his displeasure. In one he referred to the military’s business interests in the construction of the Copalar mega-business, a project he promptly ordered halted. (The Tumarín hydroelectric dam, the concession for which is owned by the Brazilian company CHN, is only one of three reservoirs included in the Copalar plans and there’s talk of military investments in Tumarín, whose land is being “protected” by the Army.)

In the end Ortega made three decisions to mollify the military leadership. First, he didn’t appoint anyone as defense minister, leaving the ministry headless for seven years, until appointing Martha Elena Ruiz this January. And that appointment is now a distinction without a difference as the new Military Code establishes that the Army will be subordinated to the President, not the Defense Ministry.

Second, Ortega transferred the competencies of both Civil Defense and Intelligence (the DID) back to the Army. Those functions had been moved to the Defense Ministry in the three previous governments, and their re-transfer has been legally established in the new code.

And third, he inaugurated what would become his favored carrot-dangling tactic to coopt the officers: he named Eduardo Halleslevens, the Army chief’s brother, executive president of INISER, the state insurance institute, a post he still holds.

Business interests
are behind it all

Ortega has repeatedly used this tactic in his strategic project since that time. Three years ago, retired General Hugo Torres told envío that “Ortega has an arsenal of resources to try to undermine the Army, ranging from flattery, hugs, buddy relations, ritual kinship, pressure and blackmail to business opportunities…”

Roberto Orozco sees the latter as behind Ortega’s latest successful siege of the Army. He recalls that for years Ortega has named former officers to government posts; granted officers concessions; given them stock options in businesses of Albanisa, the FSLN-run Venezuelan-Nicaraguan joint venture that invests the income from the sale of Venezuelan oil; and employed their wives and relatives in state institutions. In February last year, the weekly bulletin Confidencial listed nearly two dozen retired officers Ortega had named to head state institutions and Albanisa companies.

Why such urgency ?

So Nicaragua now has a new Constitution and another army. The consequences those two important changes could have in the life of the nation aren’t yet visible and can’t be calculated in the short run. They will only become evident over time.

So why such urgency in pushing them through? One explanation for why the Military Code was passed without exposing it to the scrutiny of any sector of the population could be Ortega’s impatience to finally conclude this last step of his political project: to bring the Army into line. But what about the rush in passing the constitutional reforms? Was it only to provide constitutional legitimacy to the illegalities committed since Ortega returned to office (among many others his presidential reelection in 2011 and the dozens of Supreme Court justices and other top officials who are de facto occupying their posts well past the end of their term)?

The hit-and-run way both reforms sped through the legislative body in record time may have to do with the fact that Ortega expected more support for them than he got. Many of the constitutional reforms sparked generalized rejection by business, political and religious sectors; in fact by all segments of the population beyond those in his circle of power and those who simply don’t get the implications. The military reform was also viewed with generalized suspicion by the more thinking and vociferous sectors, but not the vast poor population, which tends not to perceive any links between their daily struggles and the major institutional crises public opinion tends to go on about.

Did Ortega feel he couldn’t afford an open public education program to convince people of the value of the reforms, fearing that opposition would only grow if more attention were focused on them? Or is a questioning public opinion of little interest to him now that he has surrounded himself with institutions and individuals only too ready to do his bidding; bought impressive poll scores with his zinc roofs, low-interest loans and “Zero Hunger” bonds; satisfied the economic and social expectations of the international financing institutions and the remaining donor community; and to cap it all the political opposition has self-destructed?

Important social backing

According to the latest national poll by M&R, done this January, 65% of those polled approve of Ortega’s administration, but only 22% back all the constitutional reforms, with most knowing little about them. Even among those who said they sympathize with the FSLN, only 30% support the reforms fully, over 56% support them partially and nearly 5% oppose them. Furthermore, one in four of that same group opposes indefinite presidential reelection, which is relevant given that the central aspect of the reforms is unlimited presidential reelection and perpetuation of the model Ortega is implementing. And despite the general backing for Ortega, the population that would leave the country if it could rose by another 6% in this firm’s polls between 2012 and 2013, bringing it up to nearly 60%.

Days after the release of the M&R poll, Cid-Gallup, a more independent and thus more credible polling firm, published its own national survey, done during a similar period. While it shows 49% of the population approving of Ortega’s administration and 45% disapproving, both polls show the FSLN as the only party with electoral clout, greater than 50% in both cases. The Liberal opposition parties combined don’t even hit double digits in the M&R poll (4.2% for Arnoldo Alemán’s once powerful Constitutionalist Liberal Party and 3.3% for Eduardo Monte¬alegre’s Independent Liberal Party), while those identifying as independents rose to nearly 35%, up from M&R’s September 2013 poll.

While various opposition leaders claim that the population’s fear of this increasingly authoritarian government and the social control effectively exercised through its locally-based social organizations render the polls’ findings unreliable, they amply demonstrate Ortega’s maneuvering ability and the social backing for him is very important. That backing is found largely in two sectors: disciplined Sandinistas who tenaciously cling to the party’s traditions and the poorest and least informed non-Sandinistas, who have benefitted from the government’s largesse. In both cases, the constitutional and military reforms engender neither rejection nor reflection.

“The most dangerous and
sensitive thing” since 2007

In the Speaking Out section of this issue, former guerrilla commander Mónica Baltodano speaks with notable concern about the changes to the Military Code and concludes that “in my judgment it is the most dangerous and most sensitive of all the things that have occurred since Ortega took office.”

Her explanation extends beyond the concrete aspects of the new legal articulation between the code and the reformed Constitution: “Sandinismo willed Nicaragua an Army that was no one’s property, that ended up being a national Army, a very respected institution. What they are doing now is annihilating that pre-condition for peace. It’s a very profound regression. By reconverting that Army, which is a decisive factor for conserving the peace, they are coming very close to that praetorian guard [the Somoza dictatorship’s National Guard] we destroyed in 1979.”

While we must wait to see the consequences of the new Military Code’s contents on national life, it’s already safe to say that they indicate an involution toward the main political characteristic of the eighties: the problematic State-Party-Army model.

The Army’s challenges
are now greater

The evolution of the Army of Nicaragua from its guerrilla origins to its professionalization and its contribution to the consolidation of democratic institutionality has garnered admiration and even generated studies of the process involved. It has been a positive reference in Central America, particularly compared to the armies of other countries that have never completely shaken off their repressive origins. Together with the National Police, it is the institution that scored the highest marks from the population in successive opinion polls over the years. Just one example of the respect it has earned for its peacetime role can be found in an M&R opinion poll published in October 2009, in which 73.3% of those polled regarded it as the most trustworthy public institution in the country. That is a remarkable accomplishment for a country in which prior to 1990 violence was the historical means for dealing with problems and changing power. The National Guard’s notorious corruption, violence and abuses were among the key detonators of a popular uprising that brought down a 44-year-old US-supported dictatorship.

With the new leadership roles Ortega has now given the Army, its challenges are greater than ever. If it wants to conserve its prestige and legitimacy, and, as Mónica Baltodano says, to nourish peace, it will have to meet those challenges.

One of the main ones now is to multiply its previous efforts to reach out to all sectors of society in order to be a factor of peace and social cohesion rather than division. That requires reestablishing its cooperation with human rights organizations in dealing with investigations into abuses by its own members. The Nicaraguan Human Rights Center (CENIDH) received 23 denunciations of human rights violations by members of the Army in 2013 and such events require investigation, which in turn implies engaging in a dialogue with the population. But in 2008, after Army personnel arbitrarily killed three peasants on Nueva Guinea’s El Encanto hacienda, the Army cut the constructive communication channel maintained for years with CENIDH to collaborate in investigations that implicated it, even including sensitive ones. That communication remains shut off, but hopefully that will change.

A not very optimistic
economic context

Ortega may be emboldened by his political control and social backing, but the economic context in which he has pushed through his reforms don’t give cause for much optimism.

It is likely that the economic situation this year won’t be as good as in recent years. The coffee crisis, due both to the rust plague and the fall of international prices, is beginning to make itself felt more strongly. The international prices of peanuts and sugar have also fallen, while 2013 saw a stagnation of private investment and the Nicaraguan Foundation for Economic and Social Development (FUNIDES), the Nicaraguan business class’ think tank, has warned of the uncertainty the constitutional reforms could generate in the economy.

Nicaragua’s external current account deficit is one of the highest in the continent. The government is now also recognizing a deficit in the tax collection despite the new tax law and there is already talk of a cut in the recently approved budget. For the first time since 2009, when the effects of the world crisis hit Nicaragua, the government is beginning to require “cuts” and “austerity” from central government institutions and municipal governments. “The institutions,” said FSLN legislative representative Wálmaro Gutiérrez, who fills in as Ortega’s economic spokesperson, “have to have a contingency plan; they must make adjustments and slow down internal spending.”

A December 13, 2013, International Monetary Fund press release reporting its Executive Board’s conclusions based on last year’s annual staff visit to Nicaragua again mentions the country’s vulnerability due to its dependence on Venezuela. The IMF directors specifically refer to “uncertainties regarding… the oil import financing scheme with Venezuela” and recommend “full disclosure” of the agreement with that country. But despite the chaotic economic situation observed in Venezuela, there is no information suggesting any changes in the oil scheme.

Symptoms of autism

The constitutional and military reforms haven’t pleased important national sectors, particularly the govern-ment’s main allies, the big business elite grouped in the Superior Council of Private Enterprise (COSEP). Referring to last-minute cosmetic changes Ortega personally negotiated with them behind closed doors, a downcast José Adán Aguerri, COSEP’s president, acknowledged that “we did what we could. They were going to approve the reforms in any event. All we could try to do was mitigate some of the negative impacts.”

The most important negative impacts, however, weren’t even touched on. They are the installation of unlimited presidential continuation and the centralization of power in a single person with no counterweights or checks and balances.

The government appears to have decided to ignore the uncertainty the constitutional and military reforms are triggering among its business allies and the population’s more informed middle sectors. Those deciding the course of the country appear to be showing symptoms of autism, a malady that affects the imagination, annuls empathy and is expressed in reiterative and insistent forms of communication born of the absence of a sense of social reciprocity.

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