Stormy Weather... Can't Get Our Poor Selves Together
With the celebration of 177 years of independence, the cloudy political atmosphere generated by the pact between the government and the FSLN prevents a clear vision of the path ahead. Even in the midst of the clouds, a consensus grows that we are bad off and heading for worse.
In the past few weeks Nicaragua’s political reality has been undergoing a realignment based on political calculations, the enticing deals and economic projects fed by the globalized economy, and unbridled personal and group ambitions for greater power. The blackening storm clouds render it impossible to see how the current scheme will unfold. Of the few signs visible through this cloud cover, most leave little room for optimism, although some, through their greater coherence and honesty, are encouraging.
The pact is going forward amid pre-electoral calculations The negotiations between Arnoldo Alemán's Liberals and Daniel Ortega's Sandinistas are still progressing, while at the same time both leaders deny that what has already been agreed or is still being hammered out could be called a "pact." What is in a name, in this case, is a stigma burned into the social consciousness of Nicaraguans due to the numerous sell-out pacts between Conservatives and Liberals over the course of the nearly half-century Somoza dynasty, as well as a few notorious deals cut even before then.
President Alemán is looking to buy stability and governability, confident that the "end of the riots, barricades and tire-burning in the streets" will guarantee his Constitutionalist Liberal Party (PLC) a chance to occupy the new presidential palace, which will not be finished during Alemán's own term in office. Ortega, on the other hand, is shopping for more spaces of power, and appears equally confident that he will be the one to inaugurate the presidential palace. Or could the sense of the pact be precisely the opposite for the FSLN? A growing conviction that it will never again taste power through elections?
All these strategies are based on very debatable political analyses as well as on unresolved economic battles. All, however, are already indelibly marked by the still distant general elections of 2001.
For all the efforts of Alemán and Ortega to avoid using the word "pact," the denunciations of its content by many voices within both the FSLN and other parties have put the word and the topic squarely in the center of political debate. And that doesn't mean just debate among politicians. "People on the street" are also discussing the pact, as demonstrated by the largely informed opinions of those polled by envío in the first days of September. The results of that survey, which we offer our readers in a separate article in this issue, also show that the population overwhelmingly rejects most of the pact's presumed contents.
The "contradiction" of the "Dialogue" In early August, in a ploy to lend a certain formality to a political dialogue that is supposed to lead to a "national agreement," President Alemán called together the parties represented in the National Assembly, Nicaragua's legislative body. All ten parliamentary parties accepted.
According to the analysis of the Sandinista Renovation Movement (MRS), one of the parties involved, the dialogue's main objective is "to construct a scenario in which the Liberals and the FSLN can end up signing their bipartisan pact with the least rejection from their base." Its other aim, the MRS believes, is "to halt the progress of any kind of agreement or coincidence among political and social forces that represent an opposition to the two-party system that the pact appears to be aiming for." The MRS and several other small parties are precisely trying to forge a "third force" together.
After the first sessions of this parallel "dialogue," in which each group laid out its proposed topics for discussion, the FSLN—represented by General Secretary Daniel Ortega himself—underscored what he considered to be the central contradiction in the various agendas presented. Which should be given priority at the dialogue table, he asked rhetorically: the economic-social agenda or the political-institutional one? He went on to make clear that the FSLN will only dialogue about economic and social themes, and then only certain ones that are priorities for the country, the people and the poor majorities. At the same time he insisted that the political-institutional themes already have their sphere of debate: the National Assembly itself.
Other parties that attended the dialogue—Conservatives, Sandinistas from the MRS, Liberals from the Independent Liberal Party, among others—argue that political-institutional issues are also central points for the dialogue's negotiating table. Their reasoning is that the FSLN and what remains of the Liberal Alliance, in addition to already being bonded to each other by the pact they are negotiating separately, will act as a bipartisan steamroller in the National Assembly to protect and further their own interests.
Poverty is fought with democracy The supposed dichotomy between social justice and institutionality has frequently been brandished in Nicaragua when ideology or a lack of transparency dominates the dialogue. But it is a false contradiction. Poverty is fought with democracy—as Mexican researcher Jaime Alonso lucidly explains in his article by the same name in this issue of envío. Credits, development projects and foreign advisers are not the only weapons. Poverty is fought and rolled back above all with democratic institutions: ones that are headed by democratic authorities and that function with democratic laws and practices.
Exposing the fallacy of the contradiction Daniel Ortega put forward is critical to dispersing the storm clouds that have gathered. Why? Because the PLC-FSLN pact is top-heavy with political-institutional themes, and because the anti-democratic two-party "solution" that will be given to those themes augurs more corruption in the country and hence greater poverty, inequality and frustration.
PLC and the FSLN: Priorities and coincidences One of the key points being discussed in the pact negotiations is a new package of constitutional reforms. The PLC's most frequently reiterated objective among these reforms is the repeal of an article prohibiting Nicaraguans who have ever renounced their citizenship from running for President. Some would also like to see the removal of an article that prohibits an incumbent President from running for reelection, but Alemán seems to have been convinced not to insist on reforming the Constitution to make his own reelection possible. He relayed this decision in various statements this past month when he boasted that, while he will not run in 2001, he will do so—and win—in 2006, which the Constitution does permit. With this calendar in mind, his priority is to guarantee the presidential candidacy in the upcoming round to José Antonio Alvarado, until recently minister of government and now minister of the new, more user-friendly, super-ministry of education, culture and sports. Alvarado acquired US citizenship, which required him to renounce his Nicaraguan nationality and should in fact have even rendered him ineligible for ministerial office.
The PLC also wants a reform that would create another legislative chamber, a Senate, to provide a second negotiating phase to the approval of legislation. The Senate would be made up of notable Nicaraguan personalities and former Presidents of the Republic—the latter as lifetime members with permanent parliamentary immunity.
For its part, the FSLN has declared that one of its objectives is the dismissal of the 12 Supreme Court justices and 6 Supreme Electoral Council magistrates. The top posts of these two branches of state would then be filled with Liberals and Sandinistas in quotas proportional to the electoral results each party obtained in the past general elections. "We have a right to this; it is legitimate for us to be claiming these spaces of power," Daniel Ortega declared in a challenging tone when presenting his party's proposal. It was mentioned on that occasion that the Supreme Court justices agreed to between Liberals and Sandinistas would also serve for life.
The FSLN has expressed agreement with the PLC's desire to lift the constitutional inhibitions affecting Alvarado and other Liberal leaders but has declared its opposition to the creation of permanent Senate seats. But then declarations are only declarations. There would only be enough votes to reform the Constitution if the Liberals and Sandinistas in the National Assembly bloc together, and with that possibility at stake, anything could be negotiated. Anything.
No one is discussing the Electoral Law reforms that the Supreme Electoral Council has repeatedly pleaded for. But the FSLN and the PLC have been in total agreement since December 1997 on a package of reforms, some of which were already applied in ad hoc fashion to the March 1998 Atlantic Coast elections. These reforms would further bolster the various advantages that the FSLN and PLC already have as majority parties and would force the eventual disappearance of the smallest parties.
Some of the reforms in this electoral package—the most solid element of the pact—not only fail to correct but could worsen the essential problem with the Electoral Law as reformed just prior to the 1996 elections: it favors the politicization of the electoral branch of government over its professionalization. It has been demonstrated time and again that the country needs trained and experienced professionals at the service of the common good in all public posts, yet the PLC-FSLN agreement shows a clear preference for party faithful who, whether good, bad or mediocre at their jobs, will put party loyalties first. A particular PLC priority for the Electoral Law is the establishment of mechanisms that would guarantee that the approximately 800,000 Nicaraguans living abroad could register their votes, as it is generally considered that this would favor the PLC.
The pact may be going forward, but the people aren't going with it The pact has been subjected to heavy criticism ever since it emerged from its secret hatching ground. Envío's opinion poll reflects a flat-out rejection of almost all elements of the pact that came out in the media over the course of August. With few exceptions, the elements were opposed one after the other by Sandinistas, Liberals and those who are neither one, and often by similar percentages.
At the level of public opinion, then, this pact clearly has virtually no real grassroots support. The question that no poll can answer, however, is how this lack of support will translate politically. Will people put any energy into their opposition? Will there, for example, be a mobilization, a civic front, against the pact? Could and would the citizenry exert enough pressure to halt it?
Neither the part of the political class that has excluded itself from the pact on principle nor the part that has been excluded by those forging it seems to be going beyond the testimonial genre to actually link up with the population and stop this two-party snowball. There are no signs that anyone is ready to take the helm to steer those who have said they don't like or want the pact.
There has been more in-depth debate in the media than on the streets and in homes about the possible consequences of the pact's concrete political-institutional contents. But that's only logical. For economic reasons—a majority of the population clinging to the edge of survival and a minority joyfully squandering their profits—Nicaraguans of all socioeconomic levels have become increasingly unresponsive to national political themes.
Awareness on the part of the citizenry is on the decline, as are the experiences of effective political participation that existed in the 1980s. As the envío poll shows, people certainly know what they are being asked, have political information about it and even have a thought-out opinion. But how does that translate in their practice? How can their opinions be linked to the opportunities for political participation offered to them? How can people participate locally to change the course of the national events that concern them?
Political issues for "consumption" Most people avidly discuss the national political themes that the media offer them every day, but then quickly forget them. They don't reflect on them; they consume them—like episodes of a soap opera that are too complicated to get caught up in. Or perhaps it's even more superficial than that—more like a throw-away can of beer. The political themes themselves come and go like an ephemeral fad circuit: all the rage today, but with no staying power.
Given the apparent difficulty of changing the course of the nation's trend, a sense of powerlessness and discouragement is spreading among the more conscious minority, those who take their political responsibility seriously. This does not mean that they have become inactive. Many of them are involved in encouraging local experiences that are accumulating power and testing civic participation. But some of these experiences are still small and insufficiently linked up to others like them, and almost all are poorly publicized. Furthermore, even the world of local projects often reflects the dispersion and atomization, the vying for leadership and the mistrust that characterize the national scene.
Aware political culture vs. deceptive populist discourseA lot is at stake in the constitutional reforms that would emerge from an understanding between the Liberal government and the FSLN. At least in those that have been publicly discussed there is a dangerous leaning toward disparaging and undermining the still-fragile institutions that have haltingly been forged ever since the 1979 revolution set out to transform Nicaragua. The proposal then was not just for justice and development, but also for pluralism, tolerance and institutionality. When that initiative began, the FSLN was a "small party"—as small as if not smaller than those it thumbs its nose at today.
In addition to undermining institutionality, the pact contains components that are an assault on the tendency toward party-free professionalism that should exist in each public official and is so necessary to achieving stability and governability, as well as economic development.
In practice, despite so much unfavorable opinion, very few Nicaraguans will mobilize in any of the ways within their reach to defend the endangered institutions. Only very few relate social justice with solid institutions. Those few recognize that poverty is fought with democracy and accept that laws and institutions—not just weapons, barricades or party bosses—can also defend the poor. They are the ones whose political culture emphasizes personal participation and not follow-the-leader. That they are so few is why the populism of Daniel Ortega's current discourse, challenging institutions in the name of defending the poor or advocating that the stress should be put on the economic-social agenda (jobs, public service rates, etc.) can still find so much resonance in the popular imagination.
This discourse, coming from Ortega in the FSLN's name, is particularly harmful to the Sandinista grassroots. They are suffering both the economic impoverishment imposed by neoliberal policies and the political dis-education and false expectations to which a group of FSLN leaders with their tired old speeches—Ortega in the lead—is subjecting them.
It is imperative to introduce a distinction between the FSLN and Sandinismo as a whole, between party representatives and the base, into any analysis of Nicaragua's crisis. These two realities are increasingly divergent, although this is not yet sufficiently visible in the political arena.
Its various worn patches aside, the FSLN's populist discourse is also deceptive. First, party leaders know full well that the Alemán government is not going to modify its economic policy design; it neither can nor wants to do so, and has said so more than once. The discourse is also deceptive because the FSLN is offering no realistic popular alternatives to this design. Above all else it is deceptive because distinguished FSLN leaders have found themselves quite comfy niches in this very economic model. And following off this point, it is ultimately deceptive because the FSLN's "proposal" is none other than to occupy more spaces in the neoliberal government to get a better shot at participating in the old "buddy system" of capitalism that still reigns despite proclamations that the country has entered into "modernity" and "economic globalization."
The pact's "economic agenda" In addition to the pact's electoral, constitutional and institutional spheres, it also has an "economic agenda." One near-term element of that agenda is to place 90 FSLN cadres in posts in banks, businesses and state entities where they will handle information (the ammunition of power) and earn good salaries. There is talk of salaries of $2,500 a month and up. While that may not seem much in the first world, it needs to be set against the perspective that many state employees—traffic cops, police detectives, nurses and primary teachers included—still take home around 1/50th of that.
Another bulky item on the pact's agenda is the final writing out of deeds for a series of valuable agricultural and agroindustrial businesses that were privatized in favor of the workers after negotiated agreements between the Chamorro government and Sandinista organizations in the early 1990s. Those companies have come to form what is called the Area of Workers' Property (APT).
If an implicit endorsement of the current economic policy, among other things, lies behind the participation of 90 FSLN cadres in the government's executive structures, what might lie behind the titling of APT properties? On August 21, in a long radio interview, Sandinista sociologist Orlando Núñez analyzed the backdrop to this component of the pact, which appears key to the FSLN's interests. No one has more authority to do this analysis than Núñez, director of the Ministry of Agrarian Reform and Agricultural Development's research wing during the 1980s, and since then head of an activist research institute called CIPRES. Through CIPRES, Núñez has been a constant adviser to the APT and other associative grassroots agricultural initiatives. He has written books on the topic and presented the APT in national and international forums as the most strategic project left by the revolution and the most realistic way to democratize the market, which is essential to any alternative to the neoliberal mode. He has even hailed the APT as the germ of future socialism.
The end of the APT experience? In the radio program Orlando Núñez recalled that the workers who were benefited with privatized state properties in the 1990s received them in usufruct with an option to buy. They fought to no avail throughout Violeta Chamorro's administration to pay for the companies and get them deeded in the name of the workers' associations or collectives.
"There was no political willingness to do it," said Núñez. "Nonetheless, both the Chamorro and Alemán governments have been more than willing to sell these workers' companies to individuals. It hasn't mattered to either administration that the ones buying them are Sandinista leaders. They sell them the companies and sign the deed over to them quick as a wink."
Núñez cited a recent example in Matagalpa. The workers of one APT business had been trying to figure out how to pay for the company and get it transferred to their name, but neither the current nor past governments accepted the idea. Yet when a Sandinista businessman came along offering to buy up the company, he was able to pay and get the deed in his name immediately. Núñez also reported that only 700 remain of the 6,500 worker-owners of the APT sugar refineries, which were renegotiated between the FSLN and the Alemán government. Within a year there will only be 100; all the rest have ended up selling their shares.
"My fear," says Núñez, "is that now, after the agreement to deed the workers' companies, this only opens the door for these companies, once titled, to more easily fall prey to Sandinista, Liberal or Conservative groups—which are all mixed together now anyway. Through the banks, through credit or with money they already have, these groups can take over the companies. The reality is that the majority of the companies that have separated from the APT in the past few years, those that no longer belong to the workers, have ended up in the hands of Sandinista entrepreneurs. And just in the last few months these entrepreneurs have gone on a tremendous offensive to prise shares and whole companies away from the workers in virtually all areas—tobacco, sugar, cattle, coffee, bananas, cooking oil products. Besides being an economic offensive, it is also a political and ideological one by the Sandinista leaders. They are working actively to divide the unions and the workers in order to buy their shares more easily."
Núñez made clear that, when speaking of "Sandinista entrepreneurs," he was referring to top FSLN leaders and main cadres, characterized by a "voracity to accumulate land and appropriate what the revolution had turned over to cooperatives, peasants and farm workers." He concluded his analysis even more dramatically: "We could say that the greatest adversaries of the workers' businesses and popular proprietorship in general in these past eight years have been Sandinista entrepreneurs. The truth is that the FSLN has shown no desire to protect associative property or promote it. If this tendency is consolidated still more through the deeding promised by the Liberal government, the worst historical judgment will weigh over the FSLN in the next century. History shall not absolve the FSLN for having contributed to breaking up the popular property and again concentrating land ownership in Nicaragua."
Control the Comptroller One of the national institutions that could quickly become a negotiating chip in the FSLN-PLC pact is the office of the Comptroller General of the Republic, finally made independent of the executive branch thanks to the 1995 constitutional reforms. The Comptroller's office has been distinguishing itself on a daily basis ever since as an institution pledged to work with all possible autonomy to achieve professional excellence in its extremely difficult task of monitoring state goods.
One example of that effort is the proposal the Comptroller General's office sent to the political parties participating in the Dialogue for inclusion in their agenda of items for debate and resolution. The proposal is to define "a national development model," noting that its absence "has high political and economic costs" for Nicaragua. The comptroller also proposes "the promotion of a transparent public administration that goes about its business with efficiency, efficacy and integrity." He suggests that the following requirements for genuinely promoting this be put on the table for discussion: that a "law fostering civic participation" and a "law of information to the citizenry" be passed; that state institutions be provided a "code of ethics for public functionaries," and that legislation be put into effect that typifies and penalizes "modern crimes linked to corruption such as bribery, illicit enrichment, electronic or computer crimes, influence peddling and payoffs, among others." Finally, he requests that the "discussion and approval of legislation on administrative contentiousness be speeded up," since "its absence fosters a situation in which the population is defenseless against the state institutions."
Together with President Alemán himself, who has gone after this office with a vengeance, several of his top officials have also made it their business to disparage the work of this institution and even offend its head, Comptroller General Agustín Jarquín. They know exactly what they are doing and why they are doing it.
The executive office trained a regular barrage of both heavy and light artillery against Jarquín's office in late August. The blitz started on August 26, when the comptroller released the anxiously-awaited report on the case of the narcojet stolen in Florida then based in Nicaragua between December and April, flying in and out of the country with the designation of "presidential plane." Based on his office's investigation, Jarquín assigned administrative responsibility and presumption of penal responsibility to seven functionaries, some of whom had wriggled out of being named in the scandal until that moment. Among them were the general director of customs, the deputy minister of construction and the former director of the company that administers the airports. They were named for having exonerated the jet from taxes and other fees as well as for other irregularities committed in the case.
Vice President Enrique Bolaños immediately called the report "exaggerated." The three officials mentioned above took refuge in appeals, immunity and simplistic and semi-burlesque arguments to ratify their innocence. President Alemán added his voice to the fray by launching his now familiar deprecating question to the press: "Who's controlling the Comptroller?" He followed that with his equally familiar proposal to create "another" oversight office—under his control—to oversee the work of the existing one. He even admitted that he would formally propose this when the discussion of constitutional reforms got underway.
Yet when one journalist had the audacity to ask him "Who's controlling the President?" he quickly retorted, "the people with their vote." It is the reflection of a backward mentality, one that reduces democracy to electoral formality and doesn't take into account truly necessary social and institutional controls.
The Comptroller General's office has not been without its defenders from various quarters, however. One of the most significant expressions of public support came from the Swedish Cooperation Counselor, who stressed that the existence of an independent oversight institution offers the government important benefits. Among them, he underscored that the work of the Comptroller General's office is generating confidence among the donors who provide financial support to various projects in Nicaragua.
An encouraging attitude Alemán's proposal to create a parallel oversight institution only exacerbates the tensions between President Alemán and Comptroller Jarquín. As on previous occasions, the controversy began with the executive's unwillingness to respect the results of investigations coming out of Jarquín's office. Unlike other occasions, however, the risks are greater at this moment given the heavy-laden atmosphere.
The presidential response to the Comptroller's report on the narcojet didn't stop there. President Alemán went on to announce that various state entities had overwhelming evidence of illegal transfers of millions in funds to the Comptroller's office that were supposedly badly administered. He said that Jarquín would end up in the courts once this evidence was presented.
Reflecting a tiredness that he admits, Jarquín firmly explained over and over, in his usual direct yet cordial language, what these transfers were all about. He also referred to the "vacuum of norms" inherited by all institutions in the country which must be "ordered," taking into account that this is a slow and complex process. He reaffirmed yet again his decision to continue his work and not resign before his term ends.
His stubborn civic commitment and professional dedication is one encouraging silver lining among all the gray clouds. The problem is that anything encouraging runs risks in an atmosphere as murky as the current one. Our poll shows that the executive bad-mouthing of the Comptroller's office has had its effect. On the questions referring to controlling or firing the Comptroller, opposition drops from the three-quarters more typical of other responses to roughly two-thirds.
A revealing resignation Two events helped uncover just how real the campaign is to get rid of Jarquín one way or another. The first is that Eliseo Núñez, until a few months ago head of the Liberal bench in the National Assembly and now a dissident within the PLC, admitted having made adverse declarations several times about the Comptroller General's office and its head, under pressure from the President. The second and even more revealing event was the gesture of Pablo Ayón, director of the state telecommunications company (ENITEL). On September 4 Ayón presented his resignation, citing two reasons. One was that President Alemán had, without consulting him, replaced the two private sector members of ENITEL's board of directors with individuals loyal to Alemán—one of them his own brother, Agustín Alemán. Ayón's other reason was that he did not want to participate in the campaign to discredit the comptroller, since it was damaging to the country's interests. It was expected that ENITEL would be one of the companies to present evidence that would land the comptroller in the courts.
Not since Francisco "el Che" Laínez's honorable resignation from the Ministry of the Economy in the first months of 1997 have any other high officials in the Liberal government publicly disassociated themselves from Arnoldo Alemán's administration in such clear and courageous terms as Ayón did. His resignation contributed overwhelming proof of a plot against the comptroller, of governmental nepotism and of the "buddy system system" that is going to be applied in the privatization of ENITEL, Nicaragua's most profitable state company. It is not only a revealing gesture but also an encouraging one.
Twilight of a leadership style? Or just a "new look"? Individuals still throw a lot more weight than institutions in Nicaragua. It is true in all branches of the state, in ministries, political parties, unions, municipal governments, NGOs and the media. At times such individuals help create institutionality through their work and their example. Sometimes, through their authoritarianism, egos and irresponsibility, they make it impossible.
The "new" Daniel Ortega who has returned to the public stage is playing a relevant role in these past overcast weeks. Ever since March, when Zoilamérica Narváez publicly denounced her former stepfather for the sexual abuses to which he had allegedly subjected her for 20 years, Ortega had taken refuge in silence. He barely appeared in public and, when he did, the tension was obvious in his face and words, which were more inexpressive than ever. He refused even to mention the issue.
That lasted until the end of June, when, speaking at the various massive events commemorating the triumph of the revolution, he recovered the tone and style of his traditional agitational speeches, riddled with merciless attacks against the Liberal government. But he still made no reference of his own to the pending charge until the day he went to the courthouse to file documentation of his parliamentary immunity. Upon leaving he finally spoke about it, but only to qualify her accusations as a political plot "to destroy me and to destroy the FSLN." He later mechanically and tersely repeated this version on other occasions.
Many analyses concurred that Ortega was "finished," his personality shattered by an inability to face the challenge of clarifying what really happened in his private life or move beyond worn-out incendiary speeches in his public life. But a segment of the FSLN still seems to need him, especially now, when the PLC-FSLN pact is about to gel and is being questioned not only by grassroots Sandinistas but even by a sector within the FSLN structures. Ortega seems to be the best hope—perhaps even the only one capable—of camouflaging the voracity with which the FSLN's business echelons are prepared to join this "economic and political guerrilla band" which is burying the revolutions ideals of justice and democracy once and for all.
And so it came to pass that, on August 18, with the pact recently out in the open and already generating concerned discussion, Daniel Ortega unexpectedly showed up at the National Assembly, all spruced up to take his seat in the parliamentary sessions. Seldom had he ever done that before; his alternate normally occupied his space. Starting that same day, Daniel Ortega also began to make statements to the journalists, lay down the line and overshadow the rest of the Sandinista legislators, intimidating them with his mere presence. His leadership is as feared as it is needed.
This new look has also conditioned the way he speaks about Zoilamerica's charge. He now says that it has been his "calvary," that he doesn't want to hurt her, that this suffering has brought him solidarity from unsuspected quarters, that "they" attack him because he defends the poor. He has constructed this new discourse to move from alleged offender to offended victim.
In his new appearances, Ortega appeared euphoric, decided, aggressive, a winner. He defended the FSLN's rapprochement with the government, tried to wipe away all the "Somocista" epithets he has heaped on Alemán for so many years, stressed his agreements with the government, referred to the small parties in disrespectful terms similar to Alemán's, and continued presenting himself as champion of the poor. He even described himself as "one more of those Nicaraguans who live from dollar remittances," an allusion to the thousands of families whose breadwinners are out of work and only survive because some relative has migrated to the States or elsewhere and sends a few dollars home each month.
What does the CID-Gallup Poll mean? On September 1, a new CID-Gallup opinion poll was released. It had been taken between August 9 and 18, with a sample of 1,250 Nicaraguans. The most eye-catching question was the one that asked for favorable or unfavorable marks for a list of 13 politicians. Daniel Ortega topped the favorable list with 41%, but also got 32% unfavorable marks. Arnoldo Alemán dropped 10% from a similar poll done in April, falling to fourth place on the list with 34% favorable opinion and 40% unfavorable. Second place went to Conservative leader Noel Vidaurre (40% favorable and only 10% unfavorable). With respect to party preferences, 19% of those polled chose the PLC and 24% the FSLN.
Three results of this poll are particularly relevant. The first is the fall in popularity of President Alemán and his party. The second is the rise of Daniel Ortega and the FSLN as a product of his fall. And the third is both the high positive opinion (only one percentage point under Ortega) and low negative opinion of Conservative Party leader Noel Vidaurre.
President Alemán's fall in the polls is easily explained. Those who voted for the PLC expecting almost magical, immediate solutions to their poverty have seen no improvement in their situation. For example, 55% said they believe the country is on the "wrong" road and only 29% that the road is "correct." The country's most serious problem for 7 out of 10 of those polled is still unemployment, since 3 out of 5 have someone in their home who has been seeking work for at least six months without finding any. Some 59% said that they would take a job doing "anything" if it meant earning some wage.
And those who voted for the PLC expecting economic rationality and genuine free-market competition have only seen how closed the family and party contacts that link up all the Alemán government's dependencies really are. According to other polls done recently among the country's private businesspeople, 53% think that the economic policy the government is applying is the greatest obstacle to business development, 91% that the government is not setting clear rules in the economy and 84% that there is "fiscal terrorism" in government. It is a terrorism that coexists with favoritism toward what the Supreme Council of Private Enterprise (COSEP) called, in coded language, "emerging economic sectors."
Vidaurre's rise is unquestionably the most significant element in the poll. Among other things, it reflects the growing discontent of a social sector of the right and center with the styles of both Alemán's Liberals and Ortega's Sandinistas. The low negative rating he received may be explained by the fact that he has never been "tarnished" by holding high office.
Daniel Ortega's captive and slightly rising popularity expresses the mark his historic leadership has left on a Sandinista grassroots that is trapped in poverty and in the logic of strongman political bosses (caudillos). Within the two-party climate that already exists and is being nurtured, the rise in percentage points for Ortega also expresses "punishment" of Alemán by some non-Sandinistas for the faulty way he is running the government.
Is Zoilamérica's challenge spent? Daniel Ortega, those closest to him and some sectors of the FSLN have been trying to put a spin on the CID-Gallup poll that would define his popularity rise as overwhelming proof of the lack of echo created by Zoilamérica's charge against Ortega. Beyond this concrete case, the poll results are also being touted as a demonstration of the scant importance that the private behavior of Nicaragua's political leaders has on the population's assessment of them, and thus of the scant concern that should be given to such issues. A representative sample of the most banal treatment of this issue is the following: "This shows that we aren't as puritan as the gringos are with Clinton and Monica Lewinsky."
It is too soon to give the poll that interpretation. When Zoilamérica broke her silence to reveal a secret that was no longer allowing her to live, she laid a tremendous ethical and political challenge on society, and on Sandinismo in particular. No pollsters have yet decided to measure the social, ethical and political impact of this charge on either society or the FSLN. We could learn a great deal if such a research effort were seriously undertaken.
Six months after that national commotion broke, only one indicator has appeared in the CID-Gallup poll: the accused still has a good margin of support, though he also has his share of detractors. This does not mean that those who give him their favorable opinion as a politician necessarily disbelieve Zoilamérica's testimony, or, believing it or not, think that she spoke as part of a political conspiracy.
Meanwhile, President Alemán aired his views on the topic in an interview in the September 7 issue of The Miami Herald. There he states that if he were a legislator he "would vote to remove Daniel Ortega's immunity so that he could go before a court and clear up whether the accusations by his stepdaughter Zoilamérica are true or false. I have said nothing to my representatives, because I believe in their sovereignty. The only thing I've told them is that, as Liberals, they should maintain a civic attitude and some high moral principles, and that this is a test for them." Alemán also stated that the accusations made against Daniel Ortega on March 2 have not only harmed Nicaragua's image around the world, but "have filled the Nicaraguan people with anxiety."
Zoilamérica herself interpreted Daniel Ortega's "popularity" comeback in a long television interview as follows: "The denunciation I made is a challenge to the conscience and the political culture of this country. I know there are still many who draw a line between a leader's merits in the political arena and his behavior within the family, in the home. My charge of criminal activity against this man is also too recent. I can't expect people's consciousness to change so quickly, for us to so rapidly accept the gravity of the fact that a political leader has two faces. Opening ourselves up to this reality is very hard. It takes time and I'm learning to be patient." The dignified patience of this woman is also an encouraging sign in these stormy days.
Patience, however, doesn't mean passivity. Zoilamérica returned to the National Assembly on August 24 to ask the Assembly board's first secretary to push along the proceedings for her request that Daniel Ortega be stripped of his parliamentary immunity so he can stand trial on the sexual abuse charge. The process was on hold during the Assembly's vacation between July 10 and August 18. Lest it go on hold again for some other reason, Zoilamérica has announced that she will visit the Assembly every week with the same request until the legislators do something about the case.
Some journalists stated during the National Assembly's 45-day recess that Zoilamérica's case is "spent," that "she has already given it everything she has to give" or even that it is "getting boring." Be that as it may, the issue is still in the legislators' hands like a "hot potato," as Cardinal Miguel Obando accurately described. Several roads are open to them. One is to put the immunity issue to a vote on the plenary floor, either ratifying Ortega's parliamentary immunity or stripping him of it. Alternatively, the Assembly board could determine that he has already lost his immunity using one of two legal expediencies open to it: either because he did not attend an Assembly session for six consecutive months, or because a family law case is not covered by the immunity privilege.
The most deplorable thing the Assembly could do is let the case die in a drawer in some office. Avoiding their responsibility would be a major error for the legislators and for society. Whether because of fear, pain or "decency," some spheres of Nicaraguan society are refusing to discuss the case, but whether they elude it, hide it or try to forget it, there it is. Nicaragua needs the truth to be told.
A sick society Truth is freeing. And this particular truth could begin to cure us. The symptoms of a sick society are multiplying. It is a society in need of therapy, just as thousands upon thousands of sexual abuse victims also require it. A particularly bloody example recently shook Nicaraguan society because it held a mirror up to just how sick it can get. On August 21, in a Managua neighborhood called Reparto Schick, the stepfather of an ll-year-old girl and 5-year-old boy stabbed and slashed both them and the housekeeper to death with a machete. By the perpetrator's own admission, it was a premeditated plan to take vengeance on the children's mother, who had been favoring them over him and increasingly urging him to move out. To intimidate the little girl, who had also been trying to get him to leave, he had stripped his clothes off in front of her one day. Everything suggests that her consistently firm reactions against him were what particularly led him to plan his savage crime.
This crime lays out before us the most dangerous hallmarks of the patriarchal behavior that occurs within the majority of households—violence, bullying, disrespect for children and particularly girls, perversely oriented sexuality, a desperate search to exercise power and receive submission. This behavior model is at the root of the incest, rape and other sexual abuses committed daily against thousands of girls and women, and even some boys. Yet even with the event a topic of conversation and collective imagination for days, most people did not reflect on this pattern of macho behavior—to which the Zoilamérica case also belongs. They preferred a simpler and more myopic road instead: a clamor of voices arose to bring back the death penalty. In all these months of gathering storm clouds over the country's political future, nothing has so mobilized the consciousness of broad grassroots segments of Managua's population as a demand for the death penalty for the "butcher of Reparto Schick."
The road of reflection that could take us toward a vision of the future, that could cleanse the ills of this battered society, will be long and hard. Society will need dignity and forbearance to travel down it until all the dense clouds that hang so close over our heads are cleared away.
The Communal Movement
One of Nicaragua's more thriving grassroots initiatives
is the Communal Movement (MC), which turned 20 in September. Although the MC grew out of the old Sandinista Defense Committees (CDS) of the 1980s, it is now autonomous of any party. "Social problems have no political stripe," explains MC coordinator Enrique Picado. This community network currently works with some 3,000 local initiatives in 124 of the country's 147 municipalities. Its pre-schools and children's cafeterias, run by 800 voluntary educators, attend 30,000 boys and girls a day, with resources raised by 4,000 organized parents. The MC also has some 20,000 voluntary health brigade members who participate in national vaccination campaigns and other tasks. The MC also develops environmental work with the residents in various zones of the country.The Communal Movement's objective of contributing to community organization and volunteer work makes the local experiences it promotes particularly valuable.