A Test in Ethics For a Society in Crisis
The accusations made against Daniel Ortega by his stepdaughter Zoilamérica Narváez unexpectedly put a necessary, always present but always postponed theme in the FSLN on the already tense and complex national agenda: ethics in politics.And it added a new variant: the relationship between private and public ethics.
AFTER A VERY LONG DRY SPELL, NICARAGUA, A COUNTRY IN A MULTI-FACETED CRISIS, made the world news several times in February. First was the extended strike by doctors who earn squalid wages working in the public health system. Their fight, which began in November 1997 and has become more organized and united by the day, is for a 1,000% salary increase. (While that may sound like a lot, a specialist's base salary has been frozen at under $80 a month for the past seven years.) On March 4, after paralyzing hospital medical services for days, some four thousand men and women marched in their white medical smocks through the dusty streets of the capital demanding more worthy recompense for their life-and-death work. As they walked, they chanted, "A medical wage for the President, so he can feel what it has meant!" Had they marched earlier, President Alemán would have heard them; he had been in the vicinity observing the land where his three-million-dollar presidential palace will be constructed. This juxtaposition is a graphic image of the social side of Nicaragua's crisis.
On the Atlantic Coast, meanwhile, the election of new governments for Latin America's unique experiment in regional autonomy barely got international mention. The March 1 elections were also marked by the indifference of much of the coast population itself, even though their results this time could crucially affect the future of autonomy. The semi-empty ballot boxes were a revealing image of the political side of the national crisis.
After the polls on the coast had closed, a strong tremor was felt on election night in the Pacific zone habitually shaken by seismic activity; it was like a premonition of things to come. But no one was prepared for the kind of earthquake that convulsed Nicaragua two days later. On Tuesday morning, those who had their radio tuned into a news station to catch the latest election count were stunned to learn that 30-year-old Zoilamérica Narváez—up until that day Zoilamérica Ortega—had publicly accused her adoptive father Daniel Ortega, long-time FSLN head and former President of Nicaragua, of having sexually abused her since she was 11. That declaration and its aftershocks have rattled not only Sandinistas, but the entire society. The issue hit the top of the news in the international media and has not left national headlines since. It is a rending expression of the ethical side of the country's crisis.
Coast Elections: Apathy No SurpriseThe elections in the North and South Atlantic Autonomous Regions (RAAN and RAAS) were, as usual, heralded beforehand as a "civic festival." They were civic only for their orderliness—by all accounts the Supreme Electoral Council (CSE) had effectively solved most of the technical and organizational problems that plagued the October 1996 national elections. But as a festival, the elections fell flat for lack of a Caribbean beat. After 45 days of a campaign overwhelmed by hordes from the Pacific touting President Alemán's Constitutionalist Liberal Party (PLC), the main characteristic of the elections was their high abstention rate. Official figures show that, in both regions, over 51% of the voters who had picked up their new ID/voting card in the past two years did not go to the polls.
To those non-votes must be added the 16-20%, depending on the region, who never showed up to get their card, despite all efforts by the Regional Electoral Councils to contact them. Electoral officials on the coast say that apathy or inertia does not figure in this group, since people need the ID card for much more than just voting. They explain that the coast population is very transient. Many people move frequently and others ship out for months and even years at a time. And there is no culture of advising authorities of a change of address, since there has never before been any good reason to do so.
The abstentionism is interpreted somewhat differently depending on who is doing the interpreting. Some see it as apathy and indifference because neither of the previous two autonomous governments have been able to do much that merits taking their election seriously. Others see it as an expression of passive resistance to the domination of both elections and the regional governments by parties from the Pacific. The abstentionist behavior over the past three elections would support both theses. The abstention rate in 1990, in which both national and the first autonomous regional elections were held, was a little over 20%. It climbed to about 26% in 1994, the elections for the second autonomous government. That figure more than doubled for the 1996 national elections—52% for the RAAS and almost 60% for the RAAN—then fell back to just over 51% in both regions for these elections.
The other relevant characteristic of the elections was observed during the campaign. The PLC ostentatiously used and abused state goods—vehicles, buildings, budgets and functionaries—for its proselytizing throughout the campaign and even before it officially opened. Mid-level and high officials of the central government and PLC activists who were not from the coast had a ball throwing their weight and the state's money around. They ran up big bills in the best hotels and restaurants, cruised nearby communities in their luxury vehicles, and then gave populist speeches. They showered gifts on the population: for the women, everything from stockings to sewing machines; for the men, from baseball gloves to machetes.
There were also threats. In both regions, PLC campaigners made clear that if the communities did not vote for PLC candidates they could kiss government projects goodbye. In the RAAN, the worried population heard straight from the mouths of Liberal activists from the Pacific that, however secret their vote might be, the computers in Managua could detect who had not voted for the PLC. It was a tried and true contra trick from the 1990 national elections and many people believed it, particularly those from rural indigenous communities that don't even have electricity, much less computers.
The irregularities committed under cover of the state-party fusion, which the PLC doesn't even try to hide and in fact flaunts, are hard to punish under current legislation. In addition, the FSLN, the PLC's chief rival, had neither the organization nor the capacity to adequately substantiate even the accusations it and the smaller parties made, much less others they might have made.
The election was a bipartisan race between the PLC and the FSLN, since the two parties had united to reform the electoral law to give them the hog's share of state campaign financing funds. The local associations that are permitted to run only in these regional elections, as well as the smaller national parties that ran alone or in alliance with local groups, were at an extreme disadvantage without more funds since travel in the vast but sparsely populated region is prohibitively expensive. In this sense, even the FSLN was at a disa- dvantage, given the Liberals' lavish use of state resources.
The PLC's perks and its much-practiced overbearing style all had their effect. The PLC won the greatest number of council members in both the RAAN and the RAAS, though it fell short of an absolute majority in the RAAS. Below are the preliminary results by region, although one or two seats were still in question when envío went to press.
In the RAAN, the PLC, which pulled five seats away from the FSLN, will have all the maneuvering room it needs this time, without even bothering to bribe any councilors from YATAMA. Many self-serving leaders of that Miskito organization already joined forces with the Liberals for the 1994 elections.
In the RAAS, the future is more complicated. There the FSLN has a chance to block the PLC's ability to elect the governor, since it should not have too much trouble allying with YATAMA and the Coast Alliance (AC) around that goal, thus creating a 19-vote standoff with the PLC. The decision about which side will get the needed 24-vote majority would then fall to the 7 councilors from the new Multiethnic Indigenous Party (PIM). It promises to be a dirty fight. PIM's founder, Bible-thumping Maranatha pastor Rayfield Hodgson, is reputed by everyone in Bluefields to have a rather unsavory personal history, and has already switched parties several times. After serving the past four years as governor of the RAAS for the PLC, he is said to have formed his own party because the PLC wouldn't let him be governor again. The coast people who voted for the PIM as a way to express their opposition to national party domination of their elections have thus put Brother Ray in the catbird seat.
Votes and BoatsCSE magistrate Fernando Silva, also a poet, interpreted the abstentionism this way: "The coast people have clearly said that a boat is more important to them than a vote and crawfish more important than a candidate."
It is not hard, however, to imagine the future that awaits the coast's boats and natural resources, including its abundance of shellfish, with the danger in which Atlantic Coast autonomy now finds itself. During the campaign the PLC spoke of changing the autonomy law and even of throwing it out and writing another. One of the 1995 reforms to the Constitution opened the door to this objective, although the idea then was that the more progressive forces behind the reforms would also be the ones to approve a new autonomy law. Since it did not happen then, it could now be done by both a national legislative body and regional governments dominated by Liberals.
Eighty percent of Nicaragua's natural resource wealth, which constitutes about its only comparative advantage in the globalized world, are found on the Atlantic Coast, most of it either under or on the communal lands of the indigenous communities. It follows that Alemán's Liberals, who are using any means they can to economically consolidate their party, will try to adapt autonomy to permit the free exploitation of those resources and the buying and selling of those lands on the open market without even the weak obstacles that the current law poses.
In this process of legally de-autonomizing the coast to the benefit of Pacific politicians and a few coast allies, drug traffic can be expected to play its part. Since a good eighty percent of the drugs that circulate in Nicaragua come into the country through the Atlantic Coast, it is to be expected that the lucrative drug trade will be a permanent temptation to the newly elected council members. How many of them will succumb to this easy way to consolidate their own short-term political power and longer-term economic futures and how many will know enough to resist?
Total Incorporation? Or Total Independence?The coast elections took an unexpected turn at the end, at least in the RAAN. The marked abstentionism and apathy that characterized the voting gave rise to an announcement by the Miskito Council of Elders there that they would not recognize the new Regional Council members. Instead the Council of Elders plans to set itself up in Bilwi (the original and recently resurrected indigenous name for the northern port town and regional capital called Puerto Cabezas) as an autonomous government. Under the formula "one state and two nations," it will have its own laws and its own authorities."
What will come of all this? Just before the elections, Miskito lawyer Hazel Law told envío during a reflection session that "there is currently a serious level of fragmentation among the indigenous peoples. And the Council of Elders, despite its representativity, has not managed to surmount this. There is no regional consensus about how to fill the gaps in autonomy, but the people have not stopped seeking formulas. For the moment, the separatist or independence ideas are only dispersed thoughts. What we want is autonomy: a legal and political framework to exercise the historic rights of the Coast's indigenous peoples and communities. Whether or not this comes about depends both on the coast people and on a national consensus about our region."
President Alemán called the Council of Elders' decision to form a parallel government an "abrupt expression of its electoral defeat." (While it neither ran nor ended up endorsing any candidate or party, the Council made clear that it would not support the PLC under any circumstances. In fact, it reportedly counselled abstention, though that message is said not to have been as widely disseminated as the Council would have liked.) In an obvious interference with regional autonomy, Alemán reiterated his plan to spend ten days on the coast every three months, personally conducting the government there. He also repeated his decision to "totally and integrally incorporate" the Atlantic to the Pacific, and did not even have the grace to pretend that his goal was to integrate both sides into a single multiethnic country.
Once the new governments have taken office, envío will offer a more in-depth article analyzing the elections, their immediate aftermath and the context in which they were held.
March 3: Two Women SpeakThe ever-relegated Atlantic Coast, only remembered in the past few months because of the electoral race, got pushed back out of public focus faster than anyone would have been able to imagine. Even the electoral results themselves, which continued to change as the more remote areas were tallied in, were shoved to the inside pages after March 3.
That morning, it was discovered that the text of a letter that Zoilamérica Narváez had addressed to "friends" had been reprinted in the publication Bolsa de Noticias, presumably leaked by Zoilamérica herself. Without offering details, she states in the letter that she was repeatedly assaulted sexually by her stepfather for many years. She discusses the process she went through to reach this point of public admission and adds that she has seriously contemplated its effects at all levels, and takes full and sole responsibility for her decision. (That letter and other key documents from her and other major actors over the ensuing days are translated for readers' reflection following this article.)
By midday of the 3rd, Zoilamérica's mother Rosario Murillo, accompanied by her husband Daniel Ortega, their other children and a number of FSLN leaders from various levels, called a press conference to read a brief declaration "from the Ortega-Murillo family" in which she made a general reference to the issue as a "falsehood" and a "blow to our family," then requested that it remain "a family affair." Daniel's only utterance was to say that the issue was "very sensitive" and that he was "indignant" at a rumor that had already begin circulating that FSLN leaders Bayardo Arce and Mónica Baltodano, both present at the press conference, were behind the revelation as a way to unseat him as secretary general of the party. He then listened in silence as Rosario read. Under the circumstances, it was an ambiguous silence, maintained in the days that followed despite the mounting political costs. Was it prudence or irresponsibility? The dignified silence of the innocent or the damage-control silence of the guilty?
A couple of hours later, still on the first day, Zoilamérica held her own press conference, flanked by two people presented as "witnesses" to her process. One was Alejandro Bendaña, Sandinista government representative to the United Nations then political secretary of Nicaragua's Foreign Ministry during the 1980s and Zoilamérica's estranged husband; they were married in 1990 and separated only a few months ago. The other was Violeta Murillo, her aunt. Zoilamérica offered the assembled journalists greater detail about why and how she had made the decision to go public.
The Public and Private SpheresZoilamérica's words quite intentionally tossed into the public arena a problem that many men and no few women would like to see remain locked within the four walls of the private sphere. In her press conference, Zoilamérica said that facing what she called "her truth" would also allow others to do the same. She specifically called on men and women "to come out of the darkness, and assume their histories with fortitude and firmness."
The sexual abuse that fathers, stepfathers and other family members of all social classes commit against children and adolescents, whether they be natural or adopted children, other relatives or employees such as domestic help, is a genuine epidemic in Nicaragua. Not a day goes by in which the print and broadcast media do not report on at least one case. Society has become habituated to living with this plague.
It silently cuts across all strata of society, eating away at its fabric, leaving disastrous scars on the lives of victims and victimizers alike. Publicly acknowledging sexual abuse aids the victims' treatment by freeing them of the sense of carrying a "shameful secret." It also begins to sentence the victimizers and their accomplices—even if not by judicial means—and is a call to the consciousness of all of society, alerting potential new victims and corralling potential aggressors.
Sexual abuse is not a private illness but a social one. A major achievement at a world level is that domestic violence, one of whose most terrible expressions is sexual violence, is now considered a public health problem. In Nicaragua, an important accomplishment of the women's movement is that the law reforming the obsolete Penal Code, which was passed in 1997 although its regulatory statues have not yet been promulgated, establishes norms to sanction the various expressions of intrafamily violence. Zoilamérica has stated that she does not intend to bring suit in her case, but it nonetheless is one of the most complex and transcendental cases that Nicaraguan society could imagine facing. The stepdaughter of a former President, political leader and national and international revolutionary symbol decided to take the giant step across the threshold of the private sphere to speak out publicly against him.
FSLN Closes RanksRosario Murillo's request that the case be considered a private family problem was obviously an impossible one. A logical supposition is that Zoilamérica went public precisely because she was not finding what she needed within her family. It was also incorrect to want to keep a lid on it. If the private should become public in the case of sexual violence against children in order to begin to counteract an ill that has grave social consequences, this particular case is not only not an exception, is it a unique opportunity to contribute. Furthermore, is sexual abuse not, in its essence, an abuse of power? Does life not show that to denounce it is to stand up to the machinery of power, which is more or less destructive depending on the power of what or whom is being denounced?
From the very first moment, those who control the FSLN structures publicly responded to Zoilamérica's charge with political arguments, as befitted a case in which the personal-family sphere is totally woven into the political sphere at the very highest level. Spokespeople for the FSLN leadership made repeated public calls for Sandinistas to unconditionally back Daniel Ortega, to "close ranks" around him. Within the party, members were hindered from openly reflecting on the case. Even the Women's Commission of the Sandinista Assembly was unwilling to directly listen to Zoilamérica's testimony, despite the fact that she, an active Sandinista and even a member of one of the commissions preparing for the May party congress, had requested it.
The Weight of a Political SymbolThe main argument for closing ranks around Ortega had to do with his symbolic character. The belief is that touching him—not even accepting the accusation but simply acknowledging doubt—would be tantamount to destroying the FSLN's primary remaining moral symbol. In other words, introducing Zoilamérica's version would affect not only Daniel but the entire FSLN. The most frequently heard phrasing of this argument was that no personal problem should be put before the interests of a party that represents higher collective interests: supposedly those of Nicaragua's impoverished majorities.
Alongside the arguments were acts of pressure, intimidation, disqualifying and even the "deactivating" of some party militants who admitted that they believed what Zoilamérica was saying or merely expressed the fairness of hearing her side. The tensions were even stronger than they might otherwise have been because the FSLN congress is to decide on a proposal to "transform" the party. In addition, elections will be held for secretary general, national directorate members and other leaders at all levels. There has been talk in the ranks of replacing the old "comandancia" with younger leaders less steeped in the top-down styles of the party's clandestine history.
When Zoilamérica spoke out, all signs indicated that whatever other changes might be made, the reelection of Daniel Ortega was the line taken by the party structures, based on the supposition that his political and symbolic capital is irreplaceable in these times of national crisis. And in fact, only days after the accusation, the FSLN's main departmental leaders openly proposed Daniel's reelection to the top party post.
The lonely proposal of former National Directorate member Victor Tirado that Sandinistas should make distinctions between FSLN, FSLN Directorate and FSLN Secretary General was barely publicized and was certainly not taken under consideration. On March 6 the National Directorate issued a terse communiqué proclaiming "categorical backing" of Ortega and solidarity with his family "in this hard moment that it is going through." It called on "FSLN militants and sympathizers" to concentrate on studying and discussing the Congress document, as well as to direct their efforts to the struggle against the "measures of poverty and hunger pushed by the neoliberal government" and demanded of all Sandinistas "mutual respect, tolerance for differences of opinion and fraternity in the discussions about the Congress." A few days later, it was made known that the Sandinista leadership had "closed the case" and that it would not be investigated by the party's Ethics Commission, as some militants had initially suggested.
A Conspiracy, Plot or Project?Those inclined to assume an anti-Daniel plot or even an anti-Sandinista conspiracy—which if it exists would have to be at the topmost levels, given the protagonists in this case—came up empty-handed at first. Within 48-hours, several of the more orthodox leaders tried to fill the interpretive vacuum with the radio declarations of a Sandinista militant who spoke of having seen three people from the United States in Zoilamérica's house the day she gave the letter out to her friends. Playing on the anti-American jingoism that lies just beneath the surface in any Latin American country, which Nicaraguans keep the wraps on better than most despite having more reason not to, this witness assumed the three had arrived expressly for this act and could not discard that they were CIA agents. It was a feeble attempt and had little echo.
The political timing of Zoilamérica's accusation is an issue that has generated more questions over the days: What should be given more attention, the political motivations of the accuser or the political consequences of the accused's conduct? Did the accusation just inadvertently coincide with the eve of the FSLN congress in which the immediate future of the party will be decided? Or was it calculated to impede Daniel Ortega's reelection as FSLN secretary general and his already-announced candidacy for President of the Republic in 2001 in the most clinching as well as most unexpected way? And if the latter, who was doing the calculating? Was it a well-woven but single-minded plot in which the personal and the political came together? Or is it part of a larger and more complex political project that begins with the necessary substitution of some FSLN leaders? And again, if the latter, how well articulated is it? Put another way, is it just a heroic effort to ethically renovate the FSLN, and while at it to introduce ethics into national politics? Or are there other pieces to the project? Will this accusation shake the FSLN into a renewed morality, will it divide it, as happened before with the MRS, or will it just weaken its structures? What kind of an FSLN would the governing Liberals like to see? What styles, what kind of leaders could Alemán & Co. make "deals" with best?
These are open questions that will not be answered by interpreting the accusation as a simple lie or refusing to accept the ethical challenge implicit in the charge. They will also not be answered by underestimating the currents that have existed in the FSLN since 1990 and continue to exist even after the split that led to the creation of the Sandinista Renovation Movement (MRS), even though they have not managed to articulate themselves into a force or even to express themselves clearly.
Challenge to a Machista CultureIn their workplaces, their homes, at school, on the street, in circles of friends, everywhere, Nicaraguans—whether Sandinista or not—took up the issue and chose sides. The main question for some was whether or not to believe Zoilamérica. Others found it more comfortable only to discuss what could be behind her decision to have made her accusation at this moment.
Nicaragua's patriarchal and machista culture was put to the test, and, for the most part, its first marks were not too high. Class solidarity gave way to machista solidarity in many cases, producing politically strange cross-over statements. For example, some male rightwing politicians who daily spout vehement anti-Sandinista statements because cautious and measured; none seemed to want to cast the first stone. Many Sandinista women, particularly from the popular classes followed Rosario Murillo's example of standing by her man; a depressing number even went her one better by referring to Zoilamérica in extremely unkind fashion, even though what Daniel had been accused of is no stranger in their own homes.
Among men and women with an anti-machista consciousness, intuition, compassion and respect in the face of pain predominated. Even there the same strange cross-overs occurred. On one rightwing TV news program that first day, it was a female newscaster, obviously moved by what she had been witnessing, who blurted out, "How could she [Rosario Murillo] stand by her man and abandon her own daughter in a moment like this one?"
One way or another, everyone began to feel involved, forced to make some reflection. Following the initial convulsion, people began to line up on one side or another, guided by a whole gamut of criteria: personal experiences, political allegiances, social formation, and ways and styles of thinking.
Not without difficulty and fear, society began to intuit that the problem that had just been served up to them was not simply a left-right political one but a male-female cultural and ethical one. No better test could have been intentionally devised to measure the height and the depth of gender consciousness, of the gender perspective that has been spoken of for so many years in Nicaragua.
Nicaraguan society, and surely Sandinista society, will be unable to untangle what happened and is still happening by adopting an exclusively class perspective (left-right), an exclusively party one (Sandinista-anti Sandinista) or, worse yet, one limited to the moment (FSLN-Alemán's Liberals). Nor will such limited perspectives help them to have any effect on the currently unpredictable consequences of what is unfolding.
"Break the Silence"We have often heard national and international observers say that Nicaragua is one of the Latin American countries with the most numerous and diverse women's groups. Gender consciousness has been expanding and penetrating into all the spaces of society. Women agricultural and industrial workers, policewomen, journalists, professionals in all fields, Catholic nuns and Protestant women pastors, students and others have been lucidly and decidedly taking on board what this perspective has to teach.
One of the priority objectives of the women's movement in Nicaragua has been to denounce violence within the family and to accompany girls, adolescents and adult women who are suffering or have suffered it. On March 8, International Women's Day, the Network Against Violence Against Women, which groups together over 170 women's collectives and NGOs all around the country, recalled that, according to an extensive sampling done in León, one in every four women and one in every five men were sexually abused before the age of 12.
For their part, the 10 Women's Commissariats of the National Police, which also function throughout the country, offer data showing that 70% of the women who file charges as victims of violence were attacked by their own partner or ex-partner, and that 60% of them are housewives or domestic workers. In 1997, the Commissariats verified injuries to women in 1,457 cases of accusations and sexual violations in 493 cases. According to their statistics, crimes against women in 1997 increased 88% over 1996. Although some of this statistical increase may be because the issue is at last coming out from behind the four walls of the private domain, all organizations and institutions that work on the issue agree that many more cases occur than are denounced. "Breaking the Silence" has been one of the main slogans in campaigns and other efforts by the women's movement around this issue for years. This movement is now accompanying Zoilamérica.
The Pending RevolutionMuch more than in the revolutionary eighties, Nicaraguan society has in these post-revolutionary years received a multitude of messages questioning machista culture. These messages, which come from many quarters—the political one least of all—encourage people to denounce any form of violence, demand "democracy in the street, in the home and in the bed," extol tenderness and equity, inspire people to live their lives in a better way, and therefore to look for another way to do politics: less aggressively, without double standards, with more respect for children and women, without overarching male arrogance.
The immense majority of these encouraging messages come from groups and individuals whose more humanist way of thinking was forged in the heat of the important and positive transformations that the revolution produced in Nicaraguan society. This context of a "cultural revolution," which is following after the social revolution of the eighties, is where the case of Zoilamérica and the challenge to which all are invited should be situated.
Even though nearly eight years have passed, the trauma of the FSLN's 1990 electoral defeat is a ghost that still haunts Sandinista society. The dispersion and confusion created then have not been surmounted. The neoliberal onslaught of the nineties, and worse yet the steamrolling style of Alemán's Liberalism, which has promoted the return of Somocismo in these last years of the century, have prevented Sandinistas time and again from finding the time to face the challenge of ethics in politics. More urgent economic, electoral or political challenges always intervene. Ethics in politics is always put on the back burner, perhaps also because in the face of those more urgent challenges, this one would be like exposing a weak flank.
One of the many dangers in which the FSLN seems entangled right now is that it appears to be thinking more about winning the next elections than about winning the next generations. By her years, Zoilamérica represents the generation destined to relieve those who led the revolution a decade ago. And her case is being watched by the boys and girls who within another 20 years will be taking the baton from it.
Several generations of Nicaraguans have amassed the FSLN's political and ethical capital with their blood, proven courage and notable creativity. A revolutionary process always goes beyond those who are leading it, or who, even with the passage of years, still say they represent it. The fact is that a revolutionary process scatters the seed of transformations all around, and often harvests what it didn't even sow. It is of no small significance that it is a woman, and a young one, who has laid out such a cultural and ethical challenge to this society in crisis, this society enveloped in history-producing convulsions for over 20 years.
Will society, will Sandinismo, get lost in the labyrinth of rumors, the smell of blood in the water, or the search for revenge or scapegoats? Or will one or both be big enough to turn this painful moment into a victory? Rather than feel humiliated or disillusioned, Sandinistas ought to be able to administer their pain, organize their desperation and, recalling the immense humanistic capital in which this movement was forged, set out to begin again, as they did after Pancasán, this time accepting the pending revolution. This time, in addition to making an option for the poor, to also decide to make an option for women and for ethics.