A Society Scandalized
The pact plows forward, shrouded in impunity. Most of the population has not linked up the agreement’s negative effects on their own serious problems just surviving. Could this situation change significantly prior to the elections? And what might the election results themselves change, if anything?
We are living in a scandalized society.
The word "scandal" comes from the Greek word for stumbling block. To scandalize is literally to trip up, obstruct, hold back, although in more common usage it means to disgrace, shock, offend one’s moral sensibilities. The Alemán-Ortega pact, a genuine political scandal in all senses of the word, is the result of a long chain of previous scandals. This array of stumbling blocks has scandalized society in Nicaragua, paralyzed it, held it back and aggravated its underdevelopment. Is it finally down for the count?
How many more scandalous events or episodes—either predictable or out of the blue—might befall Nicaragua in the approximately 500 days left before the November 2001 general elections? How many more would it take to alter the current correlation of forces, characterized by a two-party steamroller that is flattening a population already battered into a stupor by economic uncertainty and political confusion?
All the fancy mathematics political actors are fiddling with these days are related to the electoral calendar’s implacable deadlines, but there are only two real questions. Will there be any significant changes before those elections? And, more importantly, could the election results get us off the scandal-strewn road and on to a different path that offers society some hope for the future?
Response in Washington: No less, but no moreOn May 23-24, President Alemán and his government delegation met in Washington with the Consultative Group for the Reconstruction and Transformation of Nicaragua, formed in the wake of the Hurricane Mitch tragedy. The meeting, scheduled to evaluate the country’s fulfillment of agreements coming out of last year’s meeting in Stockholm, went pretty much as expected. Those countries providing aid to Nicaragua’s government decided to continue doing so, despite its failure to fulfill some of the objectives, principles and priorities agreed to, but they approved no additional aid and will release the already pledged funds very slowly. Summarizing the meeting’s conclusions, the head of the Inter-American Development Bank’s Latin American and Caribbean section stated, "The international community expects concrete deeds that send an unequivocal message that there is zero tolerance for corruption in Nicaragua."
There was no shortage of reasons to cut off aid to the government. Its lax—to use a generous word—fight against corruption, the lack of good governance implicit in the recently approved electoral and constitutional reforms, the foot-dragging in designing a strategy to fight poverty, the utter lack of decentralization in resource allocation, President Alemán’s obstinate persistence in challenging—even offending—donor community representatives in Managua are just a few of the reasons that could be offered.
Such a drastic measure, however, is virtually never employed in North-South relations in these new globalized and unipolar times. Furthermore, the international community finds itself over a barrel. It knows perfectly well that cutting aid to a country as dependent as Nicaragua would only spark greater destabilization than already exists, and returning Nicaragua to some semblance of stability would involve a much larger investment than it is currently making. For now, then, international pressure on the government consists not of cutting aid, but of giving it no new funds.
The implicit message in this decision, however, is that the international community no longer expects anything from the Alemán government, and has set its sights on the changes that this year’s municipal elections and next year’s presidential ones might hold in store. No longer able to hide the donor fatigue that has set in, the Consultative Group openly pressured President Alemán to respect the electoral calendar and reject the idea of constituent elections. This would scuttle his cherished scheme to prolong his mandate under another guise—he has never made clear whether it would be as a power-wielding chief legislator in the resulting Constituent Assembly or as Daniel Ortega’s bedfellow in a government junta during that interim. In either case, since he is constitutionally prohibited from consecutive re-election, a two-year constituent would shorten the period before he could run again.
Nicaraguan government officials insisted that they were going to Washington only to report on their progress, not to request more aid, but the poverty reduction strategy they presented at the meeting would require investments of nearly a billion dollars over the next four years, which the government obviously does not have. The Alemán administration laid out its strategy and its need, but that was as far as it went. The international community is fully abreast of all the government scandals and has decided to demand of President Alemán exactly what his own slogan preaches from so many billboards inside Nicaragua: "Works, not words."
One regrettable fact is that the themes of Nicaragua’s governance and transparency so dominate the international community’s concerns that there is no room to analyze or question the macroeconomic policy being applied so dogmatically, even though the issue is on the agenda in all these international meetings. The policy was given the green light in Washington despite the long and growing chain of social and human tragedies caused by the economic measures.
President Alemán, confident that no aid will be cut but also knowing he will receive no more in what remains of his term, has no incentive to make any significant changes. It is thus logical to assume that in the 17 months remaining before the presidential elections, which may or may not remove him from power, he will persist in his authoritarian outbursts, seeing to it that they are not limited to rhetoric but actually have institutional and legal effects. He can be expected to set about constructing plank by plank the scaffolding that will ensure him power and impunity in the future.
Meanwhile, the "Taiwanization" of aid will let him sleep easy. Taiwan’s donations are an almost ideal complement to a government like Alemán’s. They come in as cash, have no policy conditioning, can be used to finance any project whether necessary or frivolous and are assured by the Asian country’s surplus. Even the payback is cheap: open doors to Taiwanese assembly plants, periodic pro-Taiwan propaganda in the Nicaraguan media and Nicaragua’s unconditional vote in the United Nations on any issue that favors Taiwan in its rivalry with China.
Overdeveloped political underdevelopmentThe President no more than touched down on his return from Washington than he demonstrated that he felt no pressure to change anything. In a confusing statement to the press in which he boasted of his success in Washington and treated the journalists present with disrespect, Alemán insisted yet again on the need for constituent elections. It is public knowledge that jurists from his Constitutionalist Liberal Party (PLC) and the FSLN are working together to design the constituent. At the end of his statement, Alemán, acting for all the world like an ill-bred and spoiled child, also retracted the call for a national dialogue made only hours earlier during his speech to the donors in Washington as a sign of his willingness to follow Confucius’ advice and govern by "rectifying."
Three days later he contradicted himself again, announcing that, in fact, he would call for a national dialogue, to seek an agenda for Nicaragua with "a twenty- or thirty-year projection." A week later he referred to the dialogue again, this time "to unite us all in the fight against drug trafficking."
The President’s expressions of political underdevelopment have exceeded the limit, and have been mixed from day one with a showy lack of austerity and probity. There have simply been too many scandals.
The international community has opted to redline its relations with the Alemán government at current aid levels and begin preparing for a new government, certain that this one has no desire to rectify anything. But if it expects nothing from this government, how much can it expect from the next one? A good number of the donor countries, dissatisfied with the pact’s institutional results and its flaunted anti-democratic objectives, will be hoping that some third alternative will triumph.
A slap in the nation’s faceIn Washington, the Consultative Group meeting urged that the Office of Comptroller General (CGR) provide forceful results in its three-month investigation of the "check scam" scandal, as proof of the government’s will to fight corruption.
This corruption case, involving Byron Jerez, head of the government’s General Income Department (DGI) and intimate ally of the President, was the first big test of the CGR’s new five-headed directive structure agreed to in the Alemán-Ortega pact.
On June 7, with all eyes on it, the CGR failed the test. In the resolution it released that day, three of the five comptrollers recommended that Jerez, who is also the PLC treasurer, leave his DGI post, but only for "administrative failures." Despite false signatures on many of the 14 sizable checks, payments to family businesses that no longer even exist, illegal contracts, lies and Jerez’s appropriation of funds earmarked for Mitch victims for his own personal use, the three comptrollers claimed there was no evidence of criminal responsibility. The two dissenting votes came from the FSLN’s José Pasos Marciaq, who argued that not all avenues of investigation had been exhausted, and former Comptroller General Agustín Jarquín, who alone maintained that enough evidence existed to take the case to court.
Later in the day, Jerez announced that he had already offered his "voluntary resignation," that he was "happy" with the resolution and that he had planned to resign even earlier to prepare his campaign for legislative representative next year, but stuck around to "oversee the investigation." His parting volley to the press was, "I’ll see you in the National Assembly."
The previous week, the National Assembly’s ten-member Anti-Corruption Commission, consisting of Liberals, Sandinistas and Conservatives, had unanimously recommended that Jerez be removed from office but also that the case be turned over to the Attorney General’s office for judicial processing. Hours after the CGR announced its conclusions, Rafael Córdova Alvarez preempted that move by filing suit against Jerez in Managua’s First District Criminal Court. Córdova Alvarez was the CGR’s director of probity when Jarquín headed the institution and had undertaken the audit of the DGI in 1999 that first uncovered hints of the check scam; he was fired two months ago. Judge Martha Quezada, who presides over that court, opened the case the next day, based on the abundant documentation offered to back the charges.
In presenting his suit, Córdova declared that he chose this court because he considers Judge Quezada’s exemplary history over many years on the bench as a "bulwark of Nicaragua’s judicial branch" and an "example for all Nicaraguans." She was the judge who presided over the April 1998 “narcojet” case, which implicated President Alemán in a complex scandal involving a stolen plane, presumed drug running, falsification of government documents and several other crimes, though all attempts to unravel the case were thwarted. Quezada also opened the sexual abuse case against Daniel Ortega filed by his stepdaughter Zoilamérica Narváez, but the National Assembly shelved the plaintiff’s petition to strip Ortega of his parliamentary immunity so he could stand trial.
In tripping up, the CGR scandalized us all. Those who had followed the overwhelming volume of evidence in La Prensa’s unfolding exposé of Jerez’s embezzlement modus operandi were dumfounded by the CGR’s conclusion that he should only "leave office." Even the CGR itself recognized that his "administrative errors" were "serious and reiterated violations" of the Constitution and the Penal Code, yet at the same time arguing that no presumption of criminal responsibility (indications of corruption) could be found in the evidence it examined. It is indeed reported that some institutions failed to turn over requested evidence, but that is no excuse for this watchdog institution to then summarily close a case that anyone can surmise is only the tip of an iceberg of more serious cases we will never know about. This case now represents the best expression of the Liberal government’s victory in the field of corruption.
Evidence of cloningThe situation was already scandalous enough even before the CGR resolution. That Jerez could remain in his post for so many weeks, flouting his untouchable position despite constant new evidence in the newspapers and despite being a major liability to the government, was proof of the personal, political and economic identification between him and Alemán. They are two cloned expressions of the same personal and political philosophy.
An investigation of Alemán’s term as municipal mayor of Managua (1990-96), when Jerez was working for him out of Miami, would surely contribute evidence of the beginnings of this cloning, but the CGR law only permits investigation of events in the past five years. Everything that occurred during Alemán’s time in the mayor’s office is now protected by that statute of limitations. Furthermore, Francisco Ramírez, who "laundered" the municipal books in Alemán’s first years as mayor, is today vice president of the CGR, thanks to Alemán’s "recommendation."
One doesn’t have to be a lawyer to note that, in his declarations and interviews justifying the CGR’s resolution, CGR Superior Council president Guillermo Argüello Poessy seemed more like Byron Jerez’ defense attorney than head of the state institution charged with investigating public officials and defending public goods. His whole performance was calculated to demonstrate that there was no evidence of crime, and ergo there can have been no corruption. It was shocking to see him argue that Jerez had every right to lie on his own behalf, as he indeed did, under oath, when he made his declarations before the CGR and the National Assembly. In insisting that "no crime exists; the body of evidence has not been found," Argüello Poessy seems to have forgotten that the CGR’s job is not to find or define Jerez’s crime but only to establish presumption so the case can be turned over to the courts to decide.
Evidence of Jerez’s contravention of constitutional norms, intentional obstruction of the investigations, contradictions in his declarations, incorrect proceedings and continuously repeated anomalies proven in detail, culpable omissions and forgetfulness...did none of this lead the CGR to presume that the case was worthy of judicial investigation? As one lawyer said, the CGR’s resolution is "as if a conspiracy, perpetrators, weapons and the violent disappearance of a person had been proven, but in the end all authors were absolved because the body couldn’t be found, forgetting, or apparently forgetting, that the crime itself is the body of evidence."
It is true, as Argüello Poessy claimed, that this is the first time in its history that the CGR has recommended removal of any high government official for administrative failings. In fact, the resolution recommended that Jorge Solís, PETRONIC director at the time the state petroleum company was involved in the check scam, also be removed from his current post as director of ENITEL, the state electricity company. But the real truth of the matter is that it was the international community that pressured the CGR into this historic minimum.
Truer yet are the negative precedent and the perplexity produced in the international community by the disparity between "mistake" and punishment, between the functionary’s behavior and the institution’s response. Even if it turned out that other functionaries thought twice before acting without transparency after all this, the citizenry would still be left with the bitter taste of powerlessness that such scandalous cases of impunity always leave behind.
Only God is perfectByron Jerez’s reaction when he received the resolution demonstrated his ostentatious sense of impunity. He recognized having committed errors but showed no repentance for them, shrugging them off with the remark that "only God doesn’t make mistakes." To cap this, he brazenly thanked the CGR for its decision, declared that he felt "proud" of all the work he had done, insulted La Prensa for its 91 days of "lies," thanked his "brother" Alemán for his support and stressed that he was resigning in accord with his earlier plans with his "head held high" and had not been fired as a sanction.
This flippant attitude, common to a good number of top Liberal government officials, has an underlying objective. It is to imbed in the population’s consciousness the message that when all is said and done, everybody is corrupt or would be if they had the chance, that there is corruption in every country, that it is the evil of the modern world, a cancer that cannot be cut out, that in Nicaragua no one does anything for principles any more but only for interests… In the end, according to this not always subliminal message, since anyone can be bought, "politics" is nothing other than negotiating the price. Meanwhile, because it has to stumble over these stones of scandal every day, Nicaraguan society is getting nowhere.
The perverse combination of social insensitivity, irresponsibility, powerlessness and impunity that is spreading throughout Nicaraguan society thanks to institutionalized corruption could end up having very dire consequences. Among others is the impossibility of seriously dealing with the poverty affecting the majority of Nicaraguans. We will never eradicate poverty if we are all conditioned to coexist with the corruption of public functionaries.
Institutionality trampled underfootThe unsatisfactory closure of the Byron Jerez case so soon after the Washington meeting is the most authoritarian expression of power and impunity by a government arrogantly determined to show the limits of international pressure. But it is not the only offense to the national and international community, the only trampling of institutionality, the only scandalous case of poor governance.
A few days before the Washington meeting it was learned that, weeks earlier, President Alemán had sent reforms to the CGR’s organizational law to the National Assembly for debate and approval. In so doing, he bypassed not only consultants from USAID and Germany’s GTZ who were analyzing a proposed reform to that law, but the comptrollers themselves, who were also discussing and trying to reach consensus on reforms.
According to Alemán’s bill, the President of the Republic will be personally responsible for drawing up the CGR’s internal regulations, which will also permit him to directly elect the members of the "college" of comptrollers. It will also mean the CGR losing the faculty to audit the budget, privatization processes and the execution of public works, and being prohibited from making the results of its investigations public.
It seems that the President was not satisfied with having compromised the CGR’s independence by turning it into a collegial body of comptrollers largely loyal to him. He wants more. How much and what kind of national and international pressure will it take to put a stop to such initiatives aimed at guaranteeing the power groups a future of corruption and impunity? And where will the pressure come from?
More trampling. In the days following the Washington meeting, Sandinista legislative representatives charged, with evidence, that the country had two separate budgets in 1999: one approved by the National Assembly, the only branch of state empowered to legislate budgetary matters, and an additional one authorized by the executive branch for some 980 million córdobas (just under $100 million, averaging the exchange rate for that year). The "dual budget tactic" allowed the government to dispose of public goods with utter discretion, thus undercutting international pressures expressed in aid cuts, slow disbursements or the decision to use NGOs as counterparts instead of government institutions.
The BANIC case: Another testThe sheer volume of the Jerez case has warranted much more attention than other scandals, but the privatization of the state’s Industry and Commerce Bank (BANIC) is equally emblematic. Even though the engineering of Jerez’s embezzlement required some serious unraveling, its clues were easier to follow than those of the BANIC case.
Of all the resolutions issued by the CGR when Agustín Jarquín was comptroller general, the one establishing that the "capitalization" (privatization) of BANIC should be annulled had the greatest impact on the government’s neoliberal "economic model." That model, imposed by capitalist globalization in the past decade or so, dangerously combines with the traditional "state-booty" model reproduced time and again by the national power groups. If there is something unique now, it is the current government’s shamelessness and the dearth of effective inhibitions.
The international community finally demanded clarification of how BANIC was decapitalized so that 51% of its shares could then be sold to Inversiones Iberoamericanas, a finance corporation created overnight for the sole purpose of this operation—in which our very own Byron Jerez also participated. The clarification would be another test of whether the Alemán government could demonstrate transparency and good governance.
The government’s excuse for postponing the Consultative Group meeting from February to May was precisely to let the World Bank complete an independent audit of BANIC’s privatization first, so it could be presented to the donor countries. Just before the trip to Washington the president of Nicaragua’s Central Bank and the minister of the treasury announced that the audit was ready and had uncovered no anomalies…just a few "weaknesses." But there was very little truth to either claim. The World Bank never audited the capitalizing process that the CGR had annulled; it simply contracted a company to do a "financial evaluation," which indeed confirmed weaknesses in BANIC’s provision of credits between 1997 and 1999.
The treasury minister went even further in his declarations: the "audit" proved that no high-level government official had received loans from BANIC. Yet another trampling of the truth, to say the least. It is already proven that GENINSA, a corporation whose main stockholders are Alemán and members of his family, received an $850,000 loan from BANIC to purchase the La Chinampa farm, and that BANIC financed the PLC’s 1998 campaign in the Atlantic Coast, though granting the loans in the name of individuals. Naturally, it is a lot easier to twist the truth knowing that major government opponents are unlikely to challenge such statements as they also owe huge back debts to BANIC.
Scandal in the Supreme CourtThe BANIC case made its way to the Supreme Court of Justice through this sea of hidden and murky management. It was another test, this time of the court itself. Like the CGR, the Supreme Court was restructured after the pact, and like the CGR, it didn’t pass the test. At the end of May the court’s Constitutional Bench decided in favor of a writ of protection filed by Inversiones Iberoamericanas against the CGR for having nullified the sale of BANIC. If that weren’t enough, it based its decision on a repealed article of the CGR’s organizational law. Given the incongruence, CGR President Argüello Poessy requested that the decision be reviewed, but the Supreme Court ratified it, thus endorsing the wishes of the Executive and the "ghost company" that participated so opaquely in the largest privatization yet to be carried out within the framework of Nicaragua’s structural adjustment.
Has this new scandal "resolved" and placed the official seal on the BANIC case? Given the limits imposed on them by their own work styles, powerlessness or complicity, will the international community’s representatives settle for this? Will they just conclude that nothing more can be asked of Nicaragua’s state institutions due to their historic inconsistency and current fragility?
The national community will definitely settle for it, since it has never been educated in civic culture in its history. Overwhelmed by the mere task of guaranteeing their next meal, most people have no time for analytical meetings or the money to pay for the lawyers who could unmask so many legal traps. Pushed ever further into a demobilizing individualism, they rely more on slogans and political bosses than on laws and institutions. The two parties in the pact know this all too well.
Yet another political scandalThe presidential office’s authoritarianism is irredeemable. Scandals break one on top of the other, strewing the arduous road to democracy with stumbling blocks. At the last minute, the President added another big one to the already excess baggage he was carrying to Washington: a conspiracy he himself orchestrated against José Antonio Alvarado, a PLC founder and currently its national secretary, to prevent his possible presidential candidacy in the 2001 elections.
Alvarado, who has one of the clearest and cleanest profiles in the PLC, had begun to speak frankly about electoral issues, distancing himself from the positions of Alemán, who, although only his party’s "honorary president" for now, has more power than honor. Alvarado announced that he is not in favor of holding constituent elections instead of presidential ones, promoted the idea of primary elections within the PLC to select candidates, advocated use of the secret vote in party conventions, and proposed opening up the party to more participation by youth and women. When he announced in April that he would resign his current post as defense minister to prepare his campaign for a possible PLC primary, it was the last straw.
Some PLC leaders began to speak of his "impatience," while others went so far as to use the term "betrayal." The punishment was immediate, On May 16, Minister of Government René Herrera—a man blindly obedient to Alemán—notified Alvarado that a 1990 resolution issued by the ministry’s migration division, reinstating his Nicaraguan nationality after he had renounced it to become a US citizen the previous decade, had been annulled. Herrera curtly stated that Alvarado had falsified documents and therefore was not a Nicaraguan. Alvarado denounced the unexpected decision as a "dirty trick" to keep him from running for high office and charged that President Alemán was behind it.
He promptly sought out all three of Nicaragua’s human rights to help him work out a legal strategy demonstrating anomalies in the new ministerial resolution.
Hours later, Ana Isabel Morales, who had been deputy migration director when Alvarado recovered his nationality, courageously declared that Alemán had indeed initiated the annulment process during a meeting with her on April 25, shortly before the PLC convention.
She has filed a writ of protection for the "harassment, threats and persecution she received from ministry authorities following that meeting because she had refused to bend to the President’s arbitrary determination to keep Alvarado from running.
The next day, May 17, the PLC’s National Executive Council declared that it would sanction Alvarado within 20 days for his declarations following Herrera’s resolution. The sanctions were never applied. A week later, the recently created Office of Human Rights Ombudsperson officially requested the Ministry of Government to modify the resolution against Alvarado, arguing that he is a Nicaraguan and has enjoyed all his civil and political rights since June 1990, when he recovered his nationality. Even though the office had acted at his request, Alvarado cried when he heard the recommendation.
All this hit the news while President Alemán was touring Asia prior to the Washington meeting. On his return on May 27, Alemán tried to backpedal: the party’s National Executive Council recognized that Alvarado is a Nicaraguan and gave him a deadline by which to demonstrate with official US government documentation the date on which he renounced his US nationality. On June 6, Alvarado presented a 1995 document in which the US government certified that his US nationality had been cancelled.
As the scandal unfolded, the public learned that Alemán had been trying for months to get his once-favorite successor out of the political-electoral game, fearful of Alvarado’s growing popularity not only within the party structures and rank-and-file, but also among personnel of the three ministries he has headed since 1996 (Government, Education and now Defense). Worse yet, Alvarado had become surprisingly critical of Alemán. Not only differing with some of the President’s positions, he also spoke of Alemán’s authoritarianism, his caudillismo, of the fact that no criticism is tolerated in the PLC and of the dangerous party-state symbiosis prevailing in Nicaragua. He argued that Nicaragua is reaching dangerous limits, and even questioned the PLC’s pact with the FSLN.
It did not escape notice that José Antonio Alvarado expressed his dissidence with a thoughtful and respectful tone, calling on Liberals to think for themselves and to place their nation above party interests. He consistently avoided the bombastic expressions of rancor and the cheap anti-Sandinista diatribe so common to other members of his party. When asked after one of his many statements to the press where all his equanimity came from, he calmly drove another wedge between himself and the President: "Perhaps it helps that I don’t drink…"
The Alvarado case did Alemán’s government a lot of damage in Washington and has caused an upheaval in Liberal ranks. The PLC will try to reduce this to a light tremor using all mechanisms at its disposal, including the usual array of dirty ones, but the faults opened by the quake will not be so easily closed in the 500 days left before the presidential elections.
Fraud before the factThere is strong pressure on the Nicaraguan government to respect the electoral calendar and, of course, to guarantee that the elections will be free and transparent. This pressure is aimed at stanching any possibility of the post-pact Supreme Electoral Council organizing a fraud. For the moment the two parties to that pact seem satisfied to rely on "fraud before the fact," by eliminating insofar as possible any outside contenders who could give them a run for their money. Meanwhile, these two longstanding ideological enemies go at each other hammer and tong as well. Alemán, for example, has turned their two-party edge into a Manichean choice, telling voters: "There are only two parties, only two options: good and evil, the light and the dark night."
The Electoral Law reforms agreed to in the pact are geared to forcing a two-party system on Nicaragua through legal dispositions that eliminate independent candidates and reduce third-party alternatives. Non-party candidates can no longer stand for municipal office by popular petition; even party candidates must run as part of a slate and not as individuals; and the revised requisites for forming a new party or a multi-party alliance create almost insurmountable obstacles.
The two dominant parties have also shown in this year’s municipal campaign that they are not above simply disqualifying and alternative candidates who show promise. In Washington, some countries asked for clearer explanations of how and why two threatening candidates for mayor of Managua—Sandinista Carlos Guadamuz and Conservative Pedro Solórzano—were prohibited from running. The effort to keep Alvarado out of the race by annulling his citizenship is a third example, and it now appears that it will not be the last. There are signs that "legal" prohibitions are being prepared to slap on former comptroller general Agustín Jarquín and retired army chief Joaquín Cuadra should either one formally decide to run for presidential office.
Principles for a third alternativeGiven all Nicaragua’s fragile balances and seemingly blind alleys, a healthier alternative that pulls together Nicaragua’s best and brightest takes on increasing urgency. The country needs the participation of more honest people, people who have put the polarization of the past behind them or are willing to do so, who view public office as a service to the community rather than a pipeline to personal enrichment, who seek coherence between public and private life, who are gambling on a genuine national project and not on the survival of a given party structure or the luxurious modus vivendi guaranteed by public office, who are determined to build a Nicaragua with more equity and less impunity and corruption, and who truly believe in participatory democracy.
These principles define what has begun to be called the "third way" in Nicaragua. Although caudillos and their closed circles of followers firmly control both the FSLN and PLC structures, dissident currents and individuals within both parties believe it is possible to argue for these principles from within: an Alvarado in the PLC or the Sandinista Left grouping in the FSLN, for example. Others believe it can only be built in an alternative political structure, which is an idea encouraged by the polls. No matter when or where they are done, all polls indicate that over half of the voting population supports neither of the two big parties involved in the pact.
The third-force proposal organized under the name of the Nicaraguan Democratic Movement (MDN) in February of this year was new and daring, perhaps too much so to be able to survive in the present scandalous political setting. For the first time, a group of eight independent political organizations as well as political personalities and other distinguished individuals, among them Sandinistas, Conservatives, Social Christians and several new groupings, decided to stop thinking as traditional parties and politicians to try thinking as a nation. On that premise they built an electoral alliance ranging from center-right to left that they believed could slow down or even halt the Alemán-Ortega pact’s anti-democratic march at the polls. The molders of this alliance wanted to stop the scandal.
Their vision was based on the growing perception among people of all political stripes that Nicaragua must find another way of doing politics if the country is to be viable, and on the certainty that the pact drastically reduces the spaces of all parties other than the two that signed it. Both trends, the structural one of seeking a democratic national alternative and the immediate one of rejecting the pact, came together under the banner of the MDN, until then an undistinguished "drawing room" party. By agreeing to unite as one entity under that party’s legal status and its appropriately innocuous name, the eight parties were able to skirt the jeopardizing requisites for forming an alliance—which include gathering 75,000 signatures for each party in it.
The MDN trips upThe group had no sooner submitted to the Supreme Electoral Council the 86,000 signatures it had gathered together with its list of mayoral candidates for all 151 municipalities than it suddenly fell apart. The crisis that put an end to this novel alliance began with the return to Nicaragua in May of Alvaro Jerez, one of the founders of the MDN party in 1980 and a personal friend of Alemán’s who had been living in Miami for over a decade. At the end of the month, 15 MDN leaders and founders surprised everyone by breaking the alliance agreement and allying with the Conservative Party in exchange for leadership posts or candidacies on its slate.
The alliance’s mayoral candidate in Managua, MDN businesswoman Lucía Salvo, was so affected by her party’s betrayal of the agreement that she declined her candidacy and threw her support behind former Sandinista guerrilla comandante Dora María Téllez, unanimously selected by what remained of the alliance as its candidate. The alliance will now compete in the municipal elections under the banner of Téllez’s Sandinista Renovation Movement (MRS). In a suspicious decision, the Supreme Electoral Council held onto the signatures collected rather than returning them to the alliance.
The most important reason for destroying the alliance seems to lie in the interest of Nicaragua’s traditional rightwing business oligarchy—gathered around the green of the Conservative Party banner and the green of the Pellas economic group’s capital—in recovering economic and political power. The Conservative Party has chosen to make its bid with a third-way image as well, but one appealing to the deeply rooted anti-Sandinista sentiments prevailing in certain sectors of the society.
It was becoming increasingly apparent that the dissident Sandinistas who had left the FSLN at various points and were now working with the alliance were giving it a special vigor, thus feeding Conservative fears that a "third way" national project could end up being a center-left one. The disparaging anti-Sandinista remarks by Conservative leader Noel Vidaurre and MDN leader Alvaro Jerez, President Alemán himself, as well as the evident glee of FSLN leaders when the alliance collapsed, suggest that this fear of Sandinismo—understood in its traditional sense as promoter of essential changes for Nicaragua—was the motor force behind the crisis. But the fuel for this motor is a compound of the country’s traditional political vices: opportunism, personalist thirst for leadership, inexperience debating ideas, shortsightedness, triumphalism, lack of contact with the grassroots, the lingering polarization following years of revolution and war, and an inexplicable "presidentitis." (How is it that so many people who are neither heroic nor saints want to govern a country that within 20 years could end up a desert and a mini-drug den inhabited by an under-skilled workforce of several million low-wage, largely illiterate and undernourished people?) In such a contaminated environment and with Alemán and the FSLN leadership almost certainly working behind the scenes to undermine the new initiative, it was not too difficult for the Conservative Party to entice the original MDN leaders into withdrawing their party banner and name from the alliance.
Sandinismo is necessaryThe Sandinismo that was actively, enthusiastically and maturely working in the MDN alliance through the MRS and a growing number of individual Sandinistas who have rejected the direction Daniel Ortega is taking the FSLN made this third-way approach particularly attractive. But the attraction was not based on the fake charisma of a constructed publicity image; it was the result of the work mystique, organizational capacity, grassroots contact and presence of popular leaders guaranteed by Sandinismo.
All this, feared by anti-Sandinistas, a number of non-Sandinistas and even by the current FSLN leadership, has been recognized and appreciated by still other non-Sandinistas, among them MDN’s brief mayoral candidate Lucía Salvo. Even though the Sandinista government confiscated her property in the eighties, she says she decided to direct the campaign of her replacement, Dora María Téllez, because "I prefer to be with honest people rather than with corrupt ones that the people know so well. All that anti-Sandinista talk is just fear mongering blabber. I think that it’s important to start thinking about recruiting good Nicaraguan people, and Sandinistas are Nicaraguans. As far as I’m concerned honesty must prevail, and the people I’ve met in this alliance so far are honest."
Perhaps attitudes such as these, whether public or still anonymous, offer a pledge to the future, because Nicaragua will only have a future once its road is cleared of the many scandalous stumbling blocks and honesty is again seen as a virtue rather than a thing of fools.