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  Number 232 | Noviembre 2000
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Nicaragua

Juigalpa: A Vote to Punish the PLC

The main reason the PLC was voted out of office in many municipalities it won in 1996 is the corruption of both local and national Liberal government functionaries. Juigalpa is an illustrative example.

Ramón Eugenio Rodríguez

This year’s municipal elections have turned Juigalpa into a Sandinista island in the middle of a hostile Liberal sea. During the campaign in the department of Chontales, Juigalpa’s Liberals gave "the man"—President Arnold Alemán—their guarantee of a sure victory for his mayoral candidate in that departmental capital. Trusting in the anti-Sandinista tradition of most Chontaleños and incapable of a sober view of reality, Alemán never doubted the predictions of the party faithful. But not even the Sandinistas themselves expected what ensued: the victory of FSLN mayoral candidate Erwin de Castilla Urbina, a local teacher who has run for municipal office in each election since 1990. He is a member of the Municipal Council’s drastically outnumbered FSLN bench in this outgoing Liberal administration.

A bad example that
did not go unpunished

The PLC had a major quota of corruption to be punished for in Juigalpa. At the end of 1998, Liberal mayor Augusto García was removed from office for administrative irregularities. But corruption and failure to develop go hand in hand. For example, among the anomalies were debts that caused the banks to freeze municipal government accounts, which soon meant that the government could not make payroll. In addition, the sudden decision-making vacuum created problems in several sectors and paralyzed projects just getting underway.

To make matters worse for the PLC, Deputy Mayor Gustavo Bendaña took over as mayor in 1999, although the Supreme Electoral Council never swore him in. Bendaña was soon spending fifty thousand córdobas (US$4,000) monthly on his own salary and expenses. While Juigalpan society strongly criticized these expenditures, the Municipal Council, which is the highest local authority by law, did nothing.

As in the rest of the country, the real frontrunner in Juigalpa was absenteeism. Only half of the municipality’s 31,403 registered voters actually voted. Is this another form of rejecting corruption? Certainly political apathy explains part of the high abstention rate, but a number of people tried to vote and gave up. In the rural areas, many had to walk five, ten, fifteen and up to thirty kilometers to get to the nearest polling place. While much more civic consciousness and personal cost is required to trek several kilometers than to walk a few blocks, relatively long distances had to be traveled even in urban areas. The final straw for a number of those who did make the effort, especially in the rural areas, was that they were sent from voting board to voting board to find where they were actually registered.

The Virgin of Cuapa
"helped" the FSLN

Many factors in addition to that of punishing the PLC’s corruption contributed to the FSLN’s unexpected victory. San Francisco de Cuapa, a municipality newly carved out from Juigalpa, is one.
In the difficult years of the eighties, Cuapa, then still a small rural town under Juigalpa’s jurisdiction, became a Mecca for the pilgrimages of a sector of Catholics who found an opportunity to consecrate their anti-Sandinism in the supposed appearances of the Virgin Mary in this area. The devotees reported that the Virgin cried as she revealed her secrets to the locals and that, during her appearances, the sun would suddenly spin around and occasionally reveal the face of Jesus in its center. The first person to witness these apparitions was the elderly sacristan of the sanctuary, Bernardo Martínez, later known as Bernardo of Cuapa and ultimately ordained as a priest.

Nowhere else in Nicaragua was the idolization of anti-Sandinism so striking, and so the town grew. The votes of Cuapa’s residents in the 1996 elections were essential to the Liberal Alliance victory in Juigalpa. Had Cuapa still been part of that municipality this year, the 973 votes the PLC pulled there plus the 5,436 it got in the remaining part of Juigalpa would have brought the incumbent party to within striking distance of the 6,466 with which the FSLN won Juigalpa. Lopping off Cuapa, where the FSLN won only 73 votes, helped it take Juigalpa. That is how history is written.

Juigalpa is also one of the places where the FSLN clearly benefited from the splitting of the anti-Sandinista vote. The Conservatives’ 4,048 votes combined with the Liberals’ 5,435 totally eclipses the FSLN total. The Conservative Party’s strong showing in Juigalpa is largely due to the good image of candidate Manuel Deleo Sandino, son of now-deceased Isaac Deleo Rivas, who in 1990 won a Municipal Council seat in Juigalpa on the UNO ticket and was internally elected mayor for what was then a six-year term. His administration won him recognition as "the best mayor of Nicaragua."

The new mayor has a dream

During his long history with the FSLN, and even after the pact between the PLC and the FSLN leaders, mayor-elect Erwin de Castilla Urbina has been viewed as a free thinker by the Sandinista leadership. He is not someone to follow orders slavishly, much less the old slogan "National Directorate, order us." This heterodoxy has earned him the reputation of being independent of the more orthodox municipal and departmental FSLN leaders. The FSLN’s municipal political secretary even campaigned for another candidate for a time.
De Castilla Urbina serves as coordinator of the Strategic Planning Process underway in Juigalpa thanks to its sister city relationship with the Dutch city of Leiden-The Hague. This experience has allowed him to include four fundamental areas in his municipal government plan: education, organization, production and physical-social projects.

The first pillar of his program is education, which for him goes beyond what is taught in school. He is convinced that there will be no development without education. As he sees it, none of the three educational subsystems—primary, secondary and university—"have anything to do with making cheese, processing milk or transforming leather into shoes, even though we all know that this city’s economy is based on what cows produce." Recognizing that the local curriculum has been one of "avoidance" rather than involvement, he plans to work from the mayor’s office to bring about a true curricular reform that will meet Juigalpa’s needs. It is a dream not usually viewed as falling within the realm of municipal government. Nor is it common for Nicaraguan mayors to be dreamers. We need more of them.

The new mayor is a dreamer, but he is also a realist; he doesn’t forget about cattle. He plans to reactivate the sector with long-term soft loans, technical assistance, promotion and commercialization of dairy products and meat, as well as the reopening of the Amerrisque slaughterhouse. In terms of infrastructure, his goal is the installation of a sewer system; the construction of a modern street system, a new cemetery and a central market and the placing of street signs. These are the population’s most urgent demands. Although the new mayor knows perfectly well that the municipal government does not have the capital for all this, De Castilla believes that he can make the mayor’s office into a fundraising and facilitating institution. "At least we can make a lot of noise," he told envío.

The new mayor will have to make a great deal of noise in view of the economic and political difficulties he will face in trying to implement his ambitious, education-based plan. The FSLN is up against a huge challenge to be an exemplary government in Juigalpa, its only victory in a department that eats, sleeps and drinks what the reactionary and hardly educational Radio Corporación has to say.

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