Envío Digital
Central American University - UCA  
  Number 208 | Noviembre 1998




Nitlápan-Envío team


With no way of predicting the emergency situation that Hurricane Mitch would trigger over the next several weeks, the President's office presented the National Assembly with its 1999 budget package on October 15. The opposition benches immediately expressed particular concern about the executive's assignment of 700 million córdobas (over US$60 million and 10% of the entire budget) to "incidental expenses." They also questioned why more interest on Nicaragua's foreign debt would be paid in 1999 than in 1998, even though several Paris Club countries had renegotiated the debts to them, reducing the interest payments. Another "scandal" of the 1999 budget bill was the over 4 million córdobas earmarked to compensate Vice President Enrique Bolaños for farms confiscated in the 1980s and in 1990, some of which were not returned.


The last "political act" prior to Mitch's arrival occurred on October 30, when Daniel Ortega visited Cardinal Miguel Obando with the hope of improving relations between the two men. In an interview with President Alemán two days earlier, Ortega had made important progress in aspects of the FSLN's pact with the government, and the visit to Obando was intended to communicate the points that the FSLN leadership had discovered it shared with the government.

Though the pact discussions had been moving full steam ahead as Hurricane Mitch began to dump its interminable rains on the region, they were not without a few crises, most visibly within the FSLN leadership. National Assembly representatives Mónica Baltodano and Victor Hugo Tinoco criticized former army chief Humberto Ortega for playing a principal role behind the scenes in the dialogue with the Liberals. "Humberto isn't even an FSLN militant," said Baltodano; "he doesn't represent us." FSLN general secretary Daniel Ortega, on the other hand, not only validated but also praised his brother's leading role as an FSLN interlocutor with the government. "I have charged him with this task," announced Daniel.

The deals over economic spaces—essential to the pact— continued to be discussed despite the hurricane emergency, but its political-institutional aspects, particularly the constitutional changes, may have suffered a strategic delay. Constitutional reforms must be passed by two consecutive legislatures, which means that the first approval must occur before the December recess if the desired reforms are to go into effect next year. On November 9, Ortega announced that he would suggest another meeting with Arnoldo Alemán to propose a "national unity project" to prevent the country "from heading for the cliff and falling into anarchy."


On October 28, the National Assembly's Anti-Corruption Commission, dominated by Liberal legislators, listened with evident hostility to Comptroller General Agustín Jarquín's testimony in the political suit filed against him by President Alemán. That same day, the attorney general, who is directly named by the President of the Republic, stated that the evidence against Jarquín was so "overwhelming" that the comptroller would end up either going to court or being dismissed. But within the government-FSLN pact, Alemán and Ortega had already agreed on a middle-ground solution: create a second, collegiate comptroller's office with 5-6 members—elected by the PLC and the FSLN—to "control" Jarquín and with the power to revoke his decisions at their discretion. The national emergency set back this agreement, and could turn out to have definitively paralyzed it.


Ten days before Mitch came to the region, President Alemán traveled to Oporto, Portugal, to participate in the VIII Ibero-American Summit. Upon arriving, Alemán repeatedly stated that he would not attend next year's summit, which will be held in Havana, arguing that there is no democracy and no respect for human rights in Cuba. It was a lone cry, echoed by no other head of state at the summit.


Two weeks before the hurricane rains began, an expert from the US Drug Enforcement Agency made a second test to detect cocaine ions inside the controversial Lear Jet 35-A used briefly as a presidential plane. The first test done last April had been put forward as proof positive of the presence of drug trafficking inside the country and of its links with sectors of the government. Unlike the first test, which had revealed high levels of cocaine in the jet's cabin, this one found not so much as a trace. President Alemán smugly announced that it had all been a scheme to discredit the government. The attorney general announced that he would request that the sentences against the functionaries jailed in connection with the case be quashed. The National Police chief, in contrast, remarked that all evidence, cocaine particles included, deteriorates and even disappears over time.


On November 8, the National Police found 579 kilos of cocaine, valued at $17 million, hidden in a mangrove swamp in Chinandega, waiting to be transferred out of the country. Days before, the police had detained six men in Managua—four Colombians, one Nicaraguan, and one from Belize—reportedly linked to this shipment. They had apparently taken advantage of the confusion caused by Hurricane Mitch to smuggle the drugs into the country. Evidence continued to surface throughout 1998 of mounting drug trafficking activities, domestic drug use and signs of money laundering all over the country.


In mid-October, when Hurricane Mitch's devastation of Nicaragua's rural areas would have seemed unimaginable, the government was forced to release the names of the 123 large producers who had caused the bankruptcy of the National Development Bank (BANADES) by defaulting on their loans. The pressure to do so came from the Inter-American Development Bank, which made publication of this information a condition for the disbursement of funds to support the structural adjustment program. Of the producers named, 55 never paid a cent on the huge loans granted them while the others used their influence in the government to get their loans restructured on very favorable terms, or paid less with devalued money. The list of those responsible cuts across political lines, including some who were close to the Sandinista government, others chummy with the Chamorro government and still others allied with the current Liberal government.


Daniel Ortega's stepdaughter Zoilamérica Narváez returned yet again to the National Assembly on October 21 to try to get information on her request that Ortega be stripped of his parliamentary immunity so he can be tried for prolonged sexual abuse of her. The case has been stalled in the Assembly since mid-June, and the continuing delays in dealing with it appear clearly linked to ups and downs in the negotiations over the government-FSLN pact. This time Zoilamérica announced that she was analyzing the possibility of taking her case to the International Court of Human Rights, given the signs of obstruction of justice in her own country.


On November 2, the day of the dead, the mourning for lost loved ones in Nicaragua was not confined to the cemeteries. As the Posoltega survivors were massively mourning hundreds of relatives and friends still missing and presumed dead, inhabitants of Chinandega, Estelí and Jinotega were discovering that the raging rivers swollen by Hurricane Mitch had in many cases washed coffins and skeletons out of their resting places in the cemeteries.


In mid-October, even before Mitch put Nicaragua tragically in the international media, the country briefly got a more positive headline, but it unfortunately turned out to be false. A Costa Rican cameraman announced that in the rainforests of the Indio-Maíz reserve in Río San Juan, the department in the southeast corner of Nicaragua, he had found 42 promontories in the form of pyramids that appeared to be manmade. There was immediate speculation that they could be the remains of an indigenous civilization, probably a city built by the Chibcha people, who it is generally believed migrated up from present-day Colombia several thousand years ago. In the end, Nicaraguan scientists concluded that the promontories were just columns of basaltic rock possibly formed in the tertiary era.


On October 12, President Alemán sent the National Assembly a bill titled the Organic Law Regulating the Communal Property System of the Indigenous Communities of the Atlantic Coast and Bosawás. The executive hopes that the bill will be approved in April 1999, but legislators and other social and political leaders from the coast oppose several of its articles. They argue that the articles violate the autonomy that Nicaragua's Constitution guarantees to this half of the nation, in which the most valuable natural resources just happen to be found.

Article 2, for example, concedes the state the legal authority to define which are indigenous communities and which are not. Its second paragraph reads as follows: "The Ministry of Government, following consultation with the respective Council of Elders, the endorsement of the municipal authorities governing the areas where the interested indigenous communities are based, and the carrying out of studies and investigations, will dictate an agreement recognizing as such the human group that meets the stated requirements and that merits the character of Indigenous Community."
They also find article 12, which gives the state dominion over the natural resources of the communal properties, dangerous. It reads: "When for reason of national interest the state considers the exploration and exploitation of the nonrenewable natural resources existing on a communal property to be appropriate, the state shall proceed to make use of said resources, conceding to the community possessing the lands a reasonable percentage of the net benefits obtained."
The conflict between Managua and the coast, between the central government and autonomous authority, is now wide open.

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