Observers of the institutional eclipse
Millions of people admiringly observed
the total eclipse of the sun on August 21.
In Nicaragua the sky was overcast
and the eclipse was only partial.
What is clear and observable here, however,
is the near total eclipse of institutionality.
Increasing numbers of people are seeing it.
With a month and a half to go before the November 5 municipal elections, historical militants of the once-revolutionary Sandinista National Liberation Front (FSLN) have been protesting the mayoral candidates their party imposed in many municipalities. Their protests highlight how their party’s institutionality is being eclipsed by the country’s governing couple, who also head the FSLN.
The party’s National Assembly bench, which effectively monopolizes that legislative body, seems content to limit itself to celebrating any commemoration on the calendar; approving the laws the executive branch sends it, often with instructions to fast-track them with no debate; and rubber stamping presidential decrees it wasn’t consulted about. As a result, the legislative branch, too, has been eclipsed by the governing couple.
Nicaragua’s Central Bank (BCN) has just presented us a report claiming full employment in the country, which is obviously belied by the thousands upon thousands of unemployed people surviving by hook or by crook and disclaimed by periodic polls showing under- and unemployment high on the list of the population’s major concerns.
This implausible report seals the alignment of the BCN, traditionally the country’s solidest and most reliable institution, with the institutional eclipse. And while the business elite continue to justify or approve all of this, or at least are remaining silent about it, another sector of the business class is urging an immediate response to this serious institutional crisis infecting our country.
Another municipal election like the last two fraudulent ones?
The upcoming municipal elections will decide the more than 6,000 authorities (mayors, deputy mayors and Municipal Council members) who will head the country’s 153 municipal governments. But even assuming that most will be loyal members of the governing party, their authority will be severely eclipsed by the central govern¬ment’s progressive annulment of municipal autonomy over the past decade.
These will be the seventh municipal elections in Nicaragua’s electoral history—they were first held in 1990 and are normally four-year terms. Constitutionally, then, they should have been held in 2016 at the same time as the presidential elections, a phenomenon that only occurs every 20 years, as the presidential term is five years and the municipal term only four. But President Ortega decided by decree, in an ever more frequent flouting of the law that has become the seal of his government, to extend the term one more year this time to separate the local and general elections. While he offered no explanation, one can assume it suited his power project better.
They are also the third municipal elections since Ortega returned to presidential office. The dossiers on the two previous ones make depressing reading.
In November 2008, the FSLN upped the number of municipalities it was governing from 88 to 105 (out of 153) with the best documented fraud of any elections it has organized. According to the election report by the observation organization Ethics and Transparency (EyT), “there were systematic conditions of fraud and extremely serious violations of transparency and of guarantees of ballot-count confidentiality in almost all municipalities. This skew favored the governing party by design, misrepresenting the popular will in approximately 40 municipalities.”
Those municipal elections marked a watershed in the crisis of electoral institutionality. The next ones, held in 2012, were distorted by all manner of irregularities allegedly organized by the governing party, although they were harder to document than they had been four years earlier. The only exception was the scandalous fraud in the municipality of Nueva Guinea, which probably not coincidentally was the birthplace two years later of the peasant movement that has doggedly fought against the interoceanic canal and is now demanding annulment of the canal law itself. That year, the FSLN increased its control to 134 municipal governments, among them 15 of the 16 municipalities that are also departmental capitals.
EyT calculated that abstention that year reached a national average of 60-65% and may have climbed to 70% in some municipalities. The Institute for the Development of Democracy (IPADE), which also observed those elections, put the abstention a bit lower, at 54.5%, but whatever the exact figure, it was the first time in our electoral history that abstention “won.”
When electoral institutionality began to be eclipsed
The “collapse” of electoral institu¬tionality began to be seriously discussed in the wake of those elections, when EyT distinguished them from the four preceding ones in its election report: “The main difference resides in the transition from an electoral system with questioned bipartite control to a collapsed system.” This eclipse had already become increasingly visible following the consummation in 2000 of a bipartite political pact between the Ortega-controlled FSLN and the then-governing Constitutionalist Liberal Party (PLC) controlled by Arnoldo Alemán, the country’s notoriously corrupt President at the time.
IPADE director Mauricio Zúñiga offered the following explanation in envío’s November 2012 issue: “The original logic by which the FSLN and the PLC designed the electoral branch was that the sum of two party partialities would generate an impartial institution; i.e. each party appointed two of the five magistrates and the fifth, a protégé of Cardinal Obando, would supposedly be a neutral tie breaker, above party loyalties. That logic might function in countries with a solid democratic culture and a politically acceptable institutionality. But in our country the scheme soon collapsed with the ongoing re-jigging of power quotas and the political class’ intransigent maintenance of two irreconcilable models of society. As a result of the constitutional reform agreed to by Messrs Alemán and Ortega, the electoral branch was one of the main arenas in which the two forces wrestled constantly for quotas of power, thus sparking one crisis after another: the appointed magistrates refused to meet; boycotts by either side meant there was no quorum; they were unwilling to reach agreements, etc. They effectively functioned like battling political benches in a polarized legislative assembly, even though the electoral branch of government was never conceived as adversarial. In the end the FSLN proved itself the more skilled; employing a variety of mechanisms to subordinate wills, it used every possible political trick and maneuver until it finally dominated the electoral branch.”
Why bother to vote?
Given these recent electoral experiences, the attitude of most voters toward the upcoming elections is that they’ve already read the book and seen the movie: same script, same plot, same characters, same traps.
Virtually no one trusts that the elections will be transparent, and few believe they will be choosing candidates in a genuine competition. They don’t feel their vote matters, and know it will change nothing since the results are utterly predictable. This view includes many of those who support the governing party and even a significant number of its staunchest activists. “Uncom¬petitive elections are unattended elections,” as EyT director Roberto Courtney has repeatedly remarked.
The silence of the OAS
The only differentiating element that promised guarantees of transparency and even hope for Citizens for Liberty (CxL), the one genuine (non-bought-off) opposition party participating this year was the signed commitment by Organization of American States (OAS) Secretary General Luis Almagro to send election observers in response to Ortega’s less than enthusiastic invitation last December.
An OAS technical mission here on an exploratory visit in May presented its observation plan to the government and the diplomatic corps: a first group of 5 technical experts would arrive in Nicaragua on August 10 then tour the country starting the first week of September to assess how the process was developing. They would be followed by a 120-member mission on November 1, which would split into three groups of 40 to cover the elections in the cities with the largest number of registered voters: Managua, Matagalpa and León. Among other things, they would do quick counts on election day in all three cities.
But August 10 came and went, then August ended, with neither the arrival of the technical experts nor any explanation of why they weren’t here or confirmation that they still plan to come. Almagro and his team haven’t said a word since that exploratory technical mission in May, which Ortega prevented from holding previously scheduled meetings with opposition organizations and social movements. “He virtually threw them out of the country” Violeta Granera, coordinator of the Broad Front for Democracy (FAD), told envío. The FAD was one of the groups scheduled to talk with the OAS officials, but like the others it instead received a hurried email cancelation adducing “reasons of force majeure beyond the mission’s control.” While the email promised an “institutional” response at a later date to their unexpected departure three days early, it has not been forthcoming, at least not publicly.
If the OAS is silent about what’s going on, the government is acting as if the OAS never even existed in its plans. In response to the uncertainty this silence is spawning, the CxL’s municipal candidates for Managua first threatened to make “drastic decisions” if the OAS didn’t show up soon. But when that raised no stir from any quarter, they quickly backpedaled, announcing instead that they’d be satisfied if the OAS was at least in the country on election day itself, Sunday, November 5.
There are at least two possible explanations for the OAS no-show: 1) the conditions imposed by the presidential couple were unacceptable for its traditional observation methodology and it failed to get them modified, and 2) it was unable to get financing for the observation mission. Both are very likely and mutually reinforcing.
Observing elections with such a questionable prologue and predictable epilogue would affect the regional institution’s credibility, because coming to Nicaragua would only legitimize those elections. For the same reasons, the countries most likely to finance its mission (the United States, European Union and Canada) don’t want any part in legitimizing Nicaragua’s tainted elections and have surely lost interest in throwing good money after bad on a new parody. Moreover, if the OAS were to come, the government would run the risk of it writing up a report that wouldn’t sound positive, however diplomatically it couches its criticisms. Given these conditions, the most prudent action on the part of both signers of that original commitment is to keep below the radar, however much it may disconcert the CxL, which cited the OAS presence as its justification for running candidates in such a spurious election setting.
Handpicked candidates again
The total eclipse of electoral institu¬tionality is again accompanied this year by an even more visible intensification of institutional collapse inside the FSLN itself, although it looks a lot like what we saw five years ago. In January 2012, as the governing party began to prepare for that November’s municipal elections, Nelson Artola, then the presidential couple’s municipal political operator and now its consul in inundated Houston, toured the country announcing that the mayoral candidates for departmental capitals and other important municipalities would be handpicked by Ortega and his wife, Rosario Murillo, who is currently Vice President. He added that in the remaining municipalities they would be selected by surveys or in consultation with local FSLN political secretaries. All of the latter are virtually unconditional supporters of Murillo, who had discarded the holding of internal primary elections to avoid “territorial disputes among ourselves.” That decision sparked pre-election protests by Sandi¬nistas in at least 40 municipalities that year, and the subsequent hand-picking of the party’s municipal candidates in all of them.
History has repeated itself this year, although with more delays than in 2012, because the governing party tried to avoid it blowing up too soon. Murillo announced in June that the candidates would be selected by surveys employing what she called an “evolutionary democratic model.” But they were not done in many municipalities, their results weren’t publicized or otherwise learned about even by those selected, or the selection criteria got changed…
In any event, on August 19 the FSLN delivered two large boxes to the Supreme Electoral Council (CSE), the fourth branch of government, currently owned and operated by the governing couple, with the names and files of the 6,000 candidates the party is running in the elections. However, the names weren’t announced. They were only officially learned a full month later, when published by the government daily La Gaceta on September 19, thus ushering in a new handpicking modality: the party in power not only chooses the candidates at will, but doesn’t bother to tell who has been chosen or why.
The rebellion of the “historical” Sandinistas
Keeping secrets isn’t easy in Nicaragua. It’s almost as hard as sorting out truth from fiction in the rumor mill given the dearth of official information. Once those anointed—more than 60% of whom are incumbents in their post—were let in on the secret, they launched their campaigns. Other names were leaked, some by the party structures themselves. Apparently many of the candidates weren’t the first choice of the “historical” Sandinistas, loyal militants and even in some cases important leaders in the early years of the party’s existence who have since been shunted aside by Murillo, and resent the imposition of a vision and way of operating they see as a betrayal.
They held marches, sit-ins and other forms of protest in almost all the municipalities of Nueva Segovia and Chinandega, as well as in Masaya, Niquinohomo, Boaco, Rivas, Ciudad Sandino, Jalapa, Tipitapa and Sébaco and several other municipalities over the secret handpicking of candidates. With greater or lesser organization and under a variety of names (People’s FSLN Commando, Association of Guardians of Peace, Popular Expression against Handpicking…), the “insurrectionists” announced they would abstain from voting for the imposed candidates. “It’s the rebellion of the historical members,” envío was told by someone who personally knows many of those seen in videos and photos protesting in various municipalities of Chinandega, a traditional FSLN bastion.
Rosario Murillo played down the ill will and insisted that 600,000 party sympathizers had been surveyed. She also organized marches in support of those selected.
A calculated operation that started in 2007
With that, the discrepancy between the FSLN’s historical militants, many of whom still feel a lingering loyalty to Daniel Ortega, and the newer and younger members who have deposited their future in Rosario Murillo, resurfaced. It’s a new chapter of the tensions triggered by the operation Murillo has been implementing since 2007: rejig the FSLN and even the State itself, putting manageable and unconditionally loyal party members in all positions, making use of perks and other resources and means for the purpose.
She has imposed, named or substituted political secretaries across the country over the entire ensuing decade. These people are the real expressions of local power rather than elected officials, even if the latter are also from the FSLN. She has selected the party’s candidates for both the legislative branch of government and municipal elected posts, relegating and even banishing historical FSLN cadres. And she has given more and more visible spaces—although not decision-making power—to women loyal to her and to youths with no political experience or trajectory.
The eclipse of the FSLN’s institutionality
An unprecedented element in the storm surge of dissent and protests roiling inside the governing party has been the repeated appearances of various historical militants from different municipalities on “Esta Semana” and “Esta Noche,” the Sunday and weeknight TV magazine news programs directed by well-known journalist Carlos Fernando Chamorro. With no arenas for debate or opportunities to register their criticisms within the party structures, these dissidents turned to a space Vice President Murillo considers an “enemy trench.” Chamorro directed the FSLN daily newspaper Barricada for 15 years following its founding in 1979, but was summarily removed when he attempted to expand its circulation and influence by making it a more diverse leftist publication. What these guests had to say on his programs demonstrated the governing party’s institutional eclipse.
Municipal affairs expert Silvio Prado calls it “institutional bankruptcy.” Referring to the new round of handpicked candidates he commented that “the FSLN’s institutionalization process, which involved moving from what was originally a political-military movement [during the Somoza dictatorship] to a party involved in electoral competition [with statutes, a program, congresses, candidate selection…], reverted to form as Daniel Ortega began appropriating the entire organization. That reverse drift entailed the FSLN’s de-institutionalization. All decisions, right down to the smallest ones, started being made by an ever more exclusionary circle of people, who have virtually canine-like fidelity to their masters. At the same time, what in theory should have been control and accountability to guarantee democracy and transparency fell into disuse. In those circumstances of institutional bankruptcy, the little sisters of institutionalization, such as primary elections and internal surveys, couldn’t hold their own.”
Eclipse in the Central Bank
On August 7, Central Bank President Ovidio Reyes surprised the country with the results of a survey conducted by the National Institute of Development Information (INIDE), stating that 96% of the Nicaraguans polled said they had jobs and thus that open unemployment in the country is only 4%. “It’s no accident,” he said proudly, “that an economy as dynamic as ours is showing good results in that direction.” But no one believed him and a number of the thousands upon thousands of Nicaraguans who fall into that alleged 4% joked about it in the social networks.
In the Speaking Out section of this issue, economist Néstor Avendaño, Reyes’ professor back in his university years, refutes those figures, offers others that come closer to the truth and argues with obvious consternation that the last bastion of economic seriousness in Nicaragua has been destroyed with that INIDE report. Avendaño sees “a generalized disorder in our country’s economic discourse,” as it is not the Central Bank’s job to speak about employment, the consumer price index, remittances or poverty. Nonetheless, its president talks about all manner of issues outside of its authority, while failing to report on things that do correspond to it. In Avendaño’s view, its legitimizing of this latest and most unbelievable report has “hugely affected the Central Bank and politically contaminated this institution’s seriousness and professionalism.” It is yet more proof of the total institutional eclipse.
Environmental institutionality is also being eclipsed
All legislation of recent years has not only eclipsed the work of the legislative branch but also added to the institutional crisis. Last month offered an example that will unquestionably further aggravate the environmental crisis into which the greed of one private business sector and the indolence of the public institutions are throwing the country.
On August 8, Ortega sent an executive decree to La Gaceta for official publication that annuls a 2006 decree organizing the environmental impact evaluation system all investments must comply with. Despite limitations affecting the institutions responsible for enforcing that compliance, the annulled 25-page decree took three years to draft in consultation with environmental experts and guaranteed more responsible care of the country’s natural resources. It was a reference, a legal tool to which one could turn, and perhaps most importantly a text that could be used for filing non-compliance charges.
José Adán Aguerri, the ten-time reelected president of the Superior Council of Private Enterprise (COSEP), admits that the new decree, which is only two pages long, resulted from a six-month corporative government-COSEP dialogue that excluded environmental experts. It would appear that the Nicaraguan government and big business are following in the footsteps of the Trump administration in the United States: short term corporate profits at the expense of the planet’s health and the survival of future generations.
The mining industry and the interoceanic canal
Aguirre said the new decree “will facilitate” the environmental requisites for investment projects, which are now exclusively in the hands of the Ministry of Natural Resources and the Environment (MARENA). One of the current government’s most inefficient and under-budgeted ministries, its work of granting and evaluating mining concessions and other projects has long left much to be desired.
It is thus no surprise that COSEP’s Mining Chamber was the first to welcome the new decree, one of whose objectives appears to be to facilitate the businesses of Eniminas, the recently created state mining company. The new decree and the government’s new direct involvement in mining activities coincide with the also-recent formation of a coalition of national and local forces to fight against open-pit mining in Nicaragua. Víctor Campos, director of the Humboldt Center, a Nicaraguan environmental protection NGO, discussed that coalition as well as the backstory and privileges of Eniminas in envío’s July issue.
On August 24, only days before publication of the decree, Ortega appointed Francisco López director of Eniminas with ministerial rank. López is already a one-man energy show. He is president of Petronic, Nicaragua’s state petroleum company; vice president of Albanisa, the joint-venture of Petronic and Venezuela’s state petroleum company set up to distribute Venezuelan oil and invest the profits, which have mainly gone into large-scale energy projects; the state’s representative on Disnorte-Dissur, Nicaragua’s electricity distribution company; and, hardly least, the FSLN’s treasurer.
It all seems to be of a piece. Yet another piece is a White Paper the Ortega government distributed to the diplomatic corps on the seemingly dormant interoceanic canal mega-project. Without mentioning the canal itself, it specifically describes six sub-projects associated with it, themselves all huge investments requiring environmental studies… which will now be “facilitated” by the new streamlined decree.
Dispersed energies united by a shared cause
Days after learning of this new decree’s potential ecocide impact, particularly given the institutional eclipse that’s casting the country into shadow, environmental organizations all over the country joined with academia and social and feminist organizations to issue a pronouncement alerting the country.
“The arbitrary annulment of the Environmental Impact Evaluation System is the final thrust of a mal-intentioned process that renders the vast majority of the Nicaraguan population defenseless with respect to their social and economic survival,” it says in part. “Its annulment does not attract responsible and serious investors interested in development, but favors the intromission of foreign companies characterized by their depredating extractive nature, which are coming only to destroy the few natural resources left to us.”
The pronouncement was signed by 50 organizations (including envío) whose dispersed energies were united by a shared cause: the defense of our common home. It cites these words by Pope Francis in his famous encyclical Laudato Sì: “An assessment of the environmental impact of business ventures and projects demands transparent political processes involving a free exchange of views. On the other hand, the forms of corruption which conceal the actual environmental impact of a given project, in exchange for favors, usually produce specious agreements which fail to inform adequately and to allow for full debate.”
Some businesspeople are concerned about the eclipse
Like so many other times before, COSEP President Aguerri defended the decree in the name of the government, while government officials themselves remained silent. It’s a telling expression of the eclipse of public information, or at best the turning of this task over to big business.
Not all business sectors seem happy with what’s happening, however. Conscious of the economic consequences of the institutional eclipse they’re seeing, some are adding their voices to other sectors that have begun to recognize that disempowering public institutions only serves the impunity, corruption and the unbridled avarice of the most powerful.
Presenting his organization’s second economic report of the year, Gerardo Baltodano, director of the Nicaraguan Foundation for Economic and Social Development (FUNIDES), reminded his audience that FUNIDES is “a think tank that promotes public and private policies based on a solid institutional framework and respect for the rule of law.” While noting that it is financed “by more than 65 successful and highly recognized businesses, with strong representation in COSEP and on its Advisory Board,” he assured that “our positions are not associative and are issued from an overall nation-based perspective based on rigorous economic and technical analyses.”
It was a carefully diplomatic distancing of FUNIDES from the corporative alliance between the Ortega government and the business chambers and associations under the COSEP umbrella. Baltodano went on to say that “we must promote and enrich the dialogue between COSEP and the government. Our country would be in a more unfavorable economic situation if this dialogue had not come about…. We want to make it clear that FUNIDES considers it opportune to maintain it for the benefit of our country and urge both parties to continue dialoguing.” He admonished, however, that “it is also our obligation to clarify that dialogue neither is nor should be promoted as the private sector’s co-responsibility in the governmental administration; and much less should it be used to legitimate, supplant or hide the lack of institutionality the country is experiencing, which is reflected in our still nascent juridical security and lack of inclusive political institutions.”
The solar eclipse 26 years ago
Unlike this solar eclipse, which was only partial in Nicaragua and passed through cloudy skies, the country was able to contemplate the longest total solar eclipse of the 20th century at 2 pm on July 11, 1991, with its magnificent finale: the “diamond ring.” The experience was unforgettable.
Nicaraguan scientist Jaime Incer Barquero was interviewed about this more recent and less memorable eclipse. While not hiding his anxiety about the new executive decree facilitating the “pillaging of the country,” he quickly turned to the subject at hand. Recalling that marvelous spectacle 26 years ago, he reminded us that hardly anyone enjoyed it live for “superstitious reasons.” The Chamorro government recommended that people watch it on TV, particularly since Nicaragua couldn’t provide adequate protection for people’s eyes, but he added that schools closed to protect their students, women dressed in black to ward off the danger and pregnant women hid inside their houses. In fact, virtually no one was on the streets as the day grew dark.
This year, even though barely 30% of the sun was blocked by the moon at our latitude, there was a lot of excitement, a search for appropriate lenses or homemade alternatives and a real hunger for information about what exactly causes a solar eclipse, with well-attended talks on the subject. It was a notable sign of Nicaragua’s cultural progress.
Let’s hope that all this new information we’ve accumulated about solar eclipses will mean more of us become concerned about the near-total eclipse of the government institutions that is darkening our future as a nation, and that we’ll move from being concerned but passive observers to actively participating in bringing about change.