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  Number 437 | Diciembre 2017
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Nicaragua

What’s behind the upcoming municipal model?

The governing party went into the November 5 municipal elections with 134 governments under its control and came away with 135, some new, some old, some with reelected mayors and others with new ones. What kind of maneuvering room will all these mayors have this time around? The FSLN model for this new stage isn’t more of the same, it’s worse: absolute dependence on Managua and utter submission to the party hierarchies, in a flow chart this article details. Municipal autonomy is a dead letter.

Silvio Prado

Among the various predictions about this year’s municipal elections, one predicted an intensification of the model of already hierarchical relations between the three overall levels of government that co-exist within the Nicaraguan State: the national level, the autonomous level of the Caribbean Coast regions (which itself has an additional two levels) and the municipal level.

In a democracy, the normal thing would be inter-governmental relations in the political sphere (each government level with the freedom to make decisions for its own purposes), administrative sphere (each with its own competencies and organizations to exercise them) and financial sphere (each with the financial resources to fulfill its functions). Understanding inter-governmental relations as the set of interactions that take place among the different levels of government implies at least two basic features: a vertical division of power and interdependence among the functional-territorial levels. But it’s not like that in today’s Nicaragua. Since 2007 we’ve experienced a progressive reduction of the subnational governments’ administrative roles and the subjecting of the political and financial dimensions to the governing party’s orientations.

The “Love of Nicaragua” Master Plan


Since 2007 the autonomous governments of the Caribbean Coast and the municipal governments have become simply implementing agencies for the operational plans of the National Human Development Plan designed by the central government. But that was only the first phase. The municipal governments coming out of the just-concluded elections will now be subjected to a new experiment, one titled the “Amoranicaragua” [Love of Nicaragua] Master Plan—Local Governments 2018-2022, Christian, Socialist and Solidary.”

This new plan was announced at the beginning of August, just two months before the elections. It came out of the National Congress for Human Development Planning held on July 9 with the mayors of the 134 municipalities already governed by the FSLN and authorities of the Nicaraguan Institute for Municipal Development (INIFOM), an institution under the executive branch and now controlled by it. Of the plan’s 19 guidelines, 15 are new and the rest are revised versions of the municipal governments’ competencies and responsibilities already designated within the Municipalities Law.

Political autonomy now totally absent


The intent of the Master Plan is to present routine responsibilities as novel ideas that, by law, the municipal governments already must fulfill, such as creating participatory mechanisms in the municipal planning process, or something as obvious as Council members joining the commissions that are created by none other than the Municipal Council itself. In addition to presenting nothing new, the plan reinterpreted only 2 of the more than 70 articles of the Municipalities Law. This is no surprise, as it responds to the central government’s vision of the municipal governments.

Except for the plan’s first 3 guidelines (establishing Municipal Councils as models of dialogue, the promotion of investments and local development, and honest and transparent municipal governments), which we could call political, the other 16 refer to the administrative organization of the municipal governments (electronic procedures) or the so-called managerial roles that correspond to the municipal services (public hygiene, construction and maintenance of streets and roads, community green areas, among others).

This new Master Plan, which will now begin to be applied in the municipal governments, confirms the proposal to turn them into simple offices for executing projects conceived centrally, with the purpose of subjecting the different interests and problems that co-exist in the municipalities to the priorities of a single command.

The competencies that guarantee the municipal governments’ political autonomy, which are the heart of local autonomy, appear in the Municipalities Law (articles 2 and 3, chapters II, III, IV and V.) They are the competencies that grant the local government authorities the power to make decisions that respond to the issues of concern to the people who elected them and the needs of the territories they govern. The Plan, however, says nothing about these competencies: absolutely nothing.

The Master Plan is a straitjacket


Managua, the capital, saw at least two master plans in the past: one after the 1972 earthquake and the other at the end of the 1990s. Both remained on paper because they lacked another characteristic of such plans: political sustainability.

To conceive of a master plan for the entire country now is nonsense, a mere declaration of intentions. Unlike Managua, an increasingly urban area subject to the same threats as before, the populations of Nicaragua’s 153 municipalities have very different characteristics and demands. Given such diversity, a single plan is a straitjacket that annuls initiatives arising from local identity and the area’s pressing needs, such as what to do with solid waste, how to reverse deforestation and recover aquifers, how to re-order road chaos or the course of rainwater runoff in the cities and towns, or how to encourage local development taking advantage of the links between local and external enterprises.

The logic of centralizing local decision-making started in 2007, when the national government began to revoke strategic municipal development plans, imposing instead its National Human Development Plan. As was seen in the following years, the standardizing of diversity led to municipal budgets with percentages, headings and line items assigned from Managua in weekly meetings with Sandinista mayors. The 2017 Master Plan that will now be applied is the culmination of the homogenizing aspiration of a governing group that has stressed time and time again its opposition to municipal autonomy.

The local plans only copy national lines


With these premises and from this perspective, it’s not surprising that the municipal governments run by the FSLN before these elections had already written their municipal master plans, which is only a list of works for 2018-2022. These five-year operational plans lack any type of objective or prospects for the future, at least not for the immediate one.

We can see this in a comparative reading of the municipal plans of Bluefields and El Castillo. Both are just local carbon copies of the national lines, reducing the municipal governments to executors of works with no deliberate capacities and a sui generis vision of local planning. They were written as if they had been filled out on a standardized 11-section guide. Each national guideline, written in an identical manner and in the same order, was answered with a list of physical works projects, most of which are streets, sidewalks, pathways, parks, plazas, schools and health centers, with no importance given to the fact that the competencies of the health and education policies were previously decentralized to the municipal government. It’s the same for the construction and maintenance of the National Police delegations.

Political autonomy is utterly absent from both municipal plans. Neither reflects any activities related to the power of the mayor’s office: faculties for managing the municipality; the Municipal Council as an arena for dialogue; or participatory processes for local economic development planning or evaluating the municipal government’s transparent performance. Totally absent are any words the central government considers exotic, such as “assessment”, “periodic validation” or “consultation” regarding the pertinence of the list of physical works decided upon years in advance.

From a domination approach of “I order and command”


The fact that the plans of these two municipalities for the next five years were filled out as if someone were following an instruction manual reveals submission to a controlling will similar to the centralized planning itself. Expressions of the diversity of opposing interests and variety of problems found in the municipalities are viewed as chaos that must be standardized at any cost.

The central government rejects negotiating with local governments from an interdependent perspective in which it knows it needs their support and local resources to achieve its national plans and vice versa. Instead it uses a domination approach of “I order and command,” in which it gives orders and those below obey. It annuls all space for self-governance, disrespecting the responsibilities of those elected towards their local constituencies, thus totally eliminating any feature of political autonomy.

With no room for the local governments to correct let alone challenge orientations from Managua, and certainly none to present their own initiatives, their work is reduced to “shepherding” the guidelines of the National Master Plan and implementing the decisions made outside their territories. They are bereft of any chance to govern or even to respond to local problems.

The political secretaries of the 1980s and those of today


Two ways have been used over time to annul the interdependency between central government and the local governments. One was to simply annul local elections by decree. Somoza did that on August 12, 1937. The other is to de facto impose outside agents—the FSLN’s political secretaries—on the local governments. The Ortega government has been doing this since 2007.

The first way breaks the link between electors and elected, making mayors executive branch employees. The second way, as Giovanni Sartori states, is employed when public office is seen as secondary to the party position. Both ways produce a rupture that produces submission, which in turn generates dependency.

During the revolutionary years, mayors were virtually invisible relative to the power the FSLN political secretaries possessed in the departments and municipalities. The only difference with what is occurring now is that local authorities were still appointed by the executive branch. They were not elected by popular vote until 1990.

FSLN political secretaries are back stronger than ever since 2007, with more financial resources and without the limitations of the war imposed during the 1980s. They are now subnational authoritarian elites in charge of ensuring that national dictates are complied with and the local master plans respect the format determined in Managua.

Where municipal political secretaries acquire power


The power municipal political secretaries have today is proportional, increasing as they approach the higher spheres of party and central government power. One arena in which that happens is when they accompany the mayors and Municipal Council secretaries to their weekly meetings with the Council of Local Governments, an entity created precisely to centralize municipal decisions in Managua.

Their power also increases through their participation in the meetings held with the departmental political secretaries by Vice President Rosario Murillo, National Assembly President Gustavo Porras; Supreme Electoral Council Vice President Lumberto Campbell and Sandinista Youth Coordinator Milton Ruiz. As in the 1980s, the mayors clearly perceive that municipal political secretaries are closer than they are to the spaces where real decision-making takes place or, as Nicaraguans say, “they have the good connections.”

The other source of the political secretaries’ power is their prerogative to propose names for appointment to—or dismissal from—public posts in the central government’s local delegations and candidates for local election. They can also force the removal of such elected authorities, as has been seen repeatedly since 2007. As documented by Confidencial, 34 mayors and deputy mayors have been removed since 2008, along with an undetermined number of Council members. In almost all dismissal cases, there previously were clashes with the municipal political secretary. This ability to place and remove local authorities also includes the power to give out public sector job posts, which is important within the municipalities, especially in smaller ones with a more limited labor market.

Vertical liaisons from the State-party-society


The most important function of municipal political secretaries is their role as liaisons within the party’s vertical structure as a whole, which encompasses the State and society. It’s through the respective political secretaries that the relations flow between the central government and the municipal governments as well as the different levels of autonomous government on the Caribbean Coast.

Using the political secretaries as go-betweens sidesteps inter-governmental relations of central level ministers, agencies and public officials with autonomous and municipal institutions and officials. Instead, the political secretaries manage inter-party relations and pass down orders to FSLN members with public responsibilities, be they members of the Caribbean Coast Autonomous Regional Councils or mayors, Municipal Council members or hired employees. Thus a government system territorially stratified by Nicaraguan law is dismantled and a party format is implanted in its place that de-institutionalizes the vertical division of power to concentrate it in a single person, who also heads that party.

It’s very like what Pierre F. Landry, professor of government and public administration at the Chinese University of Hong Kong, points out in his characterization of the Chinese model, “monopoly of appointments and removals is a key weapon for maintaining organizational discipline and for structuring principal–agent relationships between local Party institutions and the officials that they seek to manage in a manner that enhances the cohesion of the political system.”

In sum, municipal political secretaries are the operational link in an intricate and redundant chain of command, a typical design of the current party-State system, in which the public officials are intertwined with the FSLN hierarchy.

Who are the political secretaries?


Given the central importance of the political secretaries, a renovation of vows and persons in the primary rungs of the current system became urgent for the Ortega model. An exploratory study I conducted between April and June 2017, analyzed among other dimensions the beginning and development of these figures’ political careers in seven municipalities of the country.

For the most part I found that political secretaries are men whose average age is 55, which means that they were already young adults during most of the revolutionary period. In 1990, they would have been around 28. They thus have long political experience, both in different aspects of the Sandinista revolution as well as in the 16 years the FSLN was in the opposition. The average age of the female political secretaries I found was under 40, revealing a much more recent incorporation into a political career given that in they were only 13 when the revolution ended and only 24 in 2006, when the political secretaries regained their protagonism.

As for their entry route into a political career, most common are those appointed or designated by the FSLN Secretariat after being proposed by the departmental political secretaries, a higher rung than the municipal ones. I found no norm for the role of municipal Sandinista assemblies in electing political secretaries for their municipality. A relatively equal number of those assemblies took part in approving the appointments sent from Managua as had no say in it. This appointment by the FSLN General Secretariat, combined with optional election/approval by the municipal Sandinista assemblies is characteristic of highly centralized parties, in which, according to Italian political scientist Gianfranco Pasquino, the public official is effectively incorporated and designated by the party leadership, but being designated to hold several positions requires subsequent approval through elections from below.

2011 saw movement inside the FSLN


Regarding seniority in political secretary positions, we must remember the change of command in 2011 when retired Colonel Lenín Cerna, one of the party’s political operators closest to Daniel Ortega, was removed as head of the FSLN Organizational Secretariat by Rosario Murillo, who back then was not yet Vice President. That was the start of internal changes within the party involving the removal of militants belonging to the “old guard” (former guerrillas, retired military officers and former high FSLN cadres in the 1980s) to make room for new generations in both the FSLN hierarchy and government posts.

According to the findings of my study this year, a move to replace political secretaries that began even before 2011 has slowed down, even though new faces continue entering local leadership. The newcomers are from the Sandinista Youth, an organization Rosario Murillo has given special prominence in mobilizations to celebrate FSLN events and in organizing counter-demonstrations against the protests of government opponents.

These new tendencies don’t seem to be ensuring local leadership stability, however, given the frequent changes of political secretaries in the last six years, for example two in Acoyapa since 2011 and four in Ciudad Darío in the past five years. One could hypothesize that the more recent the appointment, the greater the instability of the position. Due to the FSLN’s de-institutionalization, as already noted by political scientist Salvador Martí I Puig, the nomination and evaluation of municipal leaders is based mainly on subjective and idiosyncratic criteria by the party’s entire hierarchy.

Who handles the strings of power?


All this leads to what appears to be a contradiction: while municipal political secretaries possess the monopoly to appoint and remove public and party authorities and officials, they also move in an uncertain zone, because in reality, they aren’t the ones pulling the strings of power. Their offices and careers depend on an intricate labyrinth of organisms and meetings where their heads could roll at any moment.

First of all, there’s the departmental political secretary, who along with the National Assembly representative from that department and other political operators, form a kind of departmental steering committee. According to interviews I conducted, this is the level where the life or death of a political career is decided for all who live in that department’s municipalities.

After this first level come the meetings of municipal and departmental political secretaries with the party’s high command. In between are the national meetings of municipal and departmental training secretaries with the national Sandinista Youth coordinator, and the meetings of the municipal and departmental organizational secretaries with Gustavo Porras, Lumberto Campbell and the all-powerful Managua political secretary, Fidel Moreno.

And lastly, there are the weekly meetings with the Council of Local Governments, the sancta sanctorum of municipal pro-Ortega politics, made up of Lumberto Campbell; Institute of Municipal Promotion (INIFOM) Executive Director Guiomar Irías; Fidel Moreno, who is also the de facto mayor of Managua; and three other mayors—Sadrach Zeledón from Matagalpa, Francisco Valenzuela from Estelí and Leónidas Centeno from Jinotega—all four of whom are also the political secretaries of their departments. In addition to “sizing up” the mayors, this entity also passes down orders, relying on the municipal political secretaries to guarantee their accomplishment.

The Council of Local Governments is also in charge of approving laws with municipal impact. It’s known that neither members of the National Assembly’s Municipal Affairs Committee nor even the legislative branch as a whole, in which the FSLN bench has an absolute majority, have any real influence anymore on the final version of bills submitted by the presidency for their approval.

The municipal governments are subordinate and dependent entities


As is evident, all these structures and meetings have a mixed character in which the legislative and electoral branches of government (the National Assembly and Supreme Electoral Council) and of the executive branch (the Vice President and INIFOM) are intertwined with the FSLN organs. More normally the central government would have agencies through which its relations with other government levels move, and these levels would have as much political legitimacy as the central government.

Maybe INIFOM would be the most appropriate institution to exercise these roles for the municipalities. However, it has changed its profile since 2007, and is now dedicated to politically controlling all municipal governments, acting most of the time as a parallel party apparatus. This is the point of view from which the Municipal Development Agenda this institution issues is understood.

Seen this way, relations between the subnational governments and central government haven’t even leaned towards inter-administrative relations, as happens in other countries where there are no autonomous regional governments or local governments and where political relations are thus obviously simpler. In Nicaragua, things are worse. Inter-governmental relations have lost any basis for reducing inter-party relations, as demonstrated by the fact that the Love of Nicaragua Master Plan was proposed only for “Christian, socialist and solidary” mayor’s offices as stated in its subtitle.

Within this hierarchical design, municipal governments are simply entities subordinated to the central government and their territories are mere experimental plots where works designed at the highest level of the party’s leadership are executed.

On the Caribbean coast, a “domesticated” autonomy


The situation is no better with the regional governments on the Caribbean Coast. If anything, it’s even more complex. There the matrix of diminishing the subnational governments to administrative tasks is repeated, as is the power of political control by parallel structures. This happens in a context in which, in theory, power should be even more widely distributed considering that in this vast area of the country there are three levels of government below the national one: the autonomous regional level, the municipal level and the indigenous/Afro-descendant territorial level. Added to that is what Miguel González et al describe in this issue as a vision of development defined not by the “autonomous” regions, but by the State, the country’s economic elite and the interests of global capital, which centers on the exploitation of the Caribbean region’s valuable natural resources.

They thus define the autonomy of the two Caribbean regions as a “domesticated autonomy,” under the hegemonic logic of a central government that has resorted to all possible instruments to achieve it, especially the use of the FSLN’s vertical liaisons to co-opt, buy off or otherwise neutralize the autonomous spheres of power, even though this has generated many clashes and logically eroded the appeal of the FSLN’s power in those regions.


Silvio Prado is a sociologist, political scientist and municipal activist.

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