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  Number 241 | Agosto 2001
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Nicaragua

A Predictable Disaster Competes with A Predicted Electoral Process

Acute rural hunger is overshadowing the electoral campaign. It is a problem requiring that candidates and voters alike put aside their polarization and begin to cooperate. What are the chances that problems such as this will find solutions once the electoral process, so tainted with exclusion and bi-caudillismo, is over?

Nitlápan-Envío team

The moving news of rampant hunger in the country’s rural areas began to compete with the discouraging news from the electoral process. A critical food shortage among the peasantry was one of many predictable disasters waiting to happen in Nicaragua. Its solution requires elements that are in as short supply as food itself: a long-term vision, a national project and politicians, professionals and a population willing to accept austerity and share it rather than the well-off imposing it on those who have nothing and are already suffering way too much. It requires us to cooperate with each other, putting polarization behind us.

Unfortunately, the elections are heading in the other direction. The campaigns are obscenely costly and the two leading parties are calculatedly making it more polarized by the day, even though the elections are shaped in their own image through a pact that they themselves hammered out. The proposed programs, such as they are, bear marks of myopic rivalry and predictable results that forecast new disasters.

Equally costly polls continue to be conducted to measure each millimeter of the population’s shifting preferences and perceptions about the elections. Nicaragua’s ever worsening structural impoverishment and the likely election results—either a tight victory by one of the parties to the pact or a technical tie leading to a costly second-round vote—call into serious question such squandering of scarce resources.

A two-horse race


All such considerations aside, the plethora of polls provide seasonal employment for a segment of the population and they require commentary, at least for inveterate poll-watchers. The last two polls done in July still ratify a first-round victory for the FSLN’s presidential candidate Daniel Ortega, although both show the gap between him and the PLC’s Enrique Bolaños narrowing (39.4% vs. 34.4% in the July 16 poll). Another important factor is that Bolaños pulled 2.5 times more new votes than Ortega over the same period.

Bolaños’ improvement presumably reflects the Conservative Party’s internal wrangling over the desire of both its own right wing and the US government to exclude non-FSLN Sandinistas from any third-way, anti-pact alliance. Over a month of detailed daily news coverage of the issue presumably explains the drop in support for this third ballot choice from 17.7% to 11.4%, but neither poll captured the full impact on the electorate of the resignation of both its presidential and vice-presidential candidates. With this last remnant of a nearly two-century-old, once-powerful oligarchic party fast shrinking into insignificance, it is now clear that the November 4 elections will be a two-horse race technically as well as politically.

What happened
to the third horse?

On July 18, the PC’s presidential ticket collapsed when former party head Noel Vidaurre and Sandinista academic Carlos Tünnermann both resigned. José Antonio Alvarado, a founder of the ruling Constitutionalist Liberal party (PLC) expelled last year for dissidence, also resigned as PC campaign chief. Their move dashed any lingering hopes that an alliance would be forged between the center-left and center-right to do battle with the two arrogant parties to the pact.
The PC’s offer of its vice-presidential slot to Tünnermann had been widely interpreted as an overture to the Sandinista Renovation Movement (MRS) and the newer Nicaraguan Unity Movement (MUN), both of which the Supreme Electoral Council had arbitrarily disqualified from running on their own. It was a short-lived interpretation; Tünnermann called it quits after only two weeks. He had ingenuously thrown himself into this "third way" project without carefully measuring how strong the opposition to it was—an example of the vanity of an intellectual dabbling in electoral politics.
After withdrawing, he justified his costly political decision—which had included resigning as president of the Ethics and Transparency Civic Group—as follows: "I do not view it as cause for disparagement that as a citizen I have shown myself willing to make a sacrifice and leave a socially prestigious position to support a party in third place. If I had done it to support the first-place party, I would be an opportunist…. With my resignation, we can see once again that the suspicions toward those of us who once had anything to do with the FSLN and now want to work for the country prevented the consolidation of a third way."
Vidaurre, a politician who has never shown any leanings toward the center-left, had made a more calculated gamble, seeing this option as the only way to gain ground within a traditional party that has always viewed him a Johnny-come-lately. Finding himself up against an adverse and increasingly uncontrollable correlation of forces, however, he had to throw in the towel despite his obvious presidential aspirations.

Alvarado, in contrast to Vidaurre, had put all his energies into the third-way project. His resignation is a vivid expression of the difficulties facing any politician with non-provincial convictions and a long-term vision in Nicaragua.

The PC quickly elected and registered a new ticket: lawyer-professor Alberto Saborío and businesswoman Consuelo Sequeira, both long-time Conservatives, whose central proposal is "an institutional change." Saborío lists four initiatives with which the PC would begin to forge this change: throwing out the Immunity Law covering legislators and public officials, which in effect only guarantees impunity; reforming the electoral law by substituting individual candidates for party slates in the election of legislators to make the National Assembly more independent; promoting a bill to establish a judicial career and thus make the judicial branch more independent; and creating a Human Rights Ministry, headed by someone proposed by civil society.

Why stay in the race?

Even a genuine third-way alliance open to left and right had no real shot at winning the presidency, but it could have attracted a lot of indecisive and even abstaining voters from across the political spectrum who are sick of the two caudillo figures and their pact. In so doing, it would have won seats for enough quality legislators to act as a political and intellectual broker in a National Assembly that now looks as though it will be a free fire zone for the two parties to the pact. In addition to serving as a brake on the pact, an independent bench in the legislature would also have put a third option in a better starting position for the 2006 presidential elections.

Instead, with the public disputes among PC leaders and their frustrated allies ending in an all-Conservative presidential ticket and just a smattering of independent Liberals on the PC’s National Assembly slate, the Conservative bench will have virtually no voice in the National Assembly. Rather than being in a position to trade a meaningful bloc of votes for legislative improvements, the few dispirited representatives could be tempted to sell their votes to either party looking to shore up its pact demands.

What are the chances
of splitting the vote?

Some of the most honest PC sympathizers have not yet given up entirely, however. There is still talk of vote-splitting: casting a vote for Bolaños to keep the FSLN out of the presidency but voting PC on the legislative ballot to undermine the force of the parties to the pact in the National Assembly. This would be especially important if the PLC wins the presidency, because it would give President Bolaños—who is historically a Conservative—some maneuvering room relative to Arnoldo Alemán, who will take possession of a lifetime seat on the Liberal’s legislative bench.
The main obstacle to this option is the electorate’s culture of almost exclusively voting a straight party ticket. In the latest poll, 72.8% of those who had already decided who they are voting for said they would vote for the same party on all four ballots: presidential, departmental legislative representatives, national representatives, and Central American Parliament.

Another obstacle resides in signs that the Bush administration will continue politically and economically pressuring the PC to bow out at the last minute and throw its remaining support to the PLC. This would indeed ensure Washington’s desire to keep any and all Sandinistas out of government in Nicaragua, since 45% of the population reaffirmed in the polls that it does not want Daniel Ortega to win the presidency "under any circumstances." Quite apart from the green light this would give the two leading parties to continue their pact and their corruption, it would be the supreme sacrifice for the PC. Not only would its legislative candidates lose their shot at a prestigious, high-salary job, but failing to participate in the elections would also mean giving up the party’s legal status.

The campaign fiddles while
Nicaraguan peasants starve

As the PC’s electoral fiasco was approaching its climax, 250 famished peasant women and their children, accompanied by a few men, descended upon Matagalpa City from their remote mountain districts to ask for handouts of food and medicines. The families set themselves up in Los Monos Park, where several children died of the hunger they had been battling for months. These families were the first visible ring of a spiral of misery that is starting to uncoil from its anonymity, and the rest of the population was shocked. No pollsters—much less government officials—had trekked up into the mountains to measure how many had already died and how many were still "undecided."
It was quickly learned that extensive signs of hunger also existed not only in other regions of Nicaragua, but in four other Central American countries as well. By early August, the World Food Programme (WFP) was reporting that a drought had affected some 1.4 million people in the region, a million of them in Honduras, and that well over half of this number was suffering near-total crop losses and critical food shortages. Suddenly, starvation and humanitarian aid—two disquieting words that recall recent African tragedies—were overshadowing the election campaign in Nicaraguan public awareness.

After tragic delays in getting its act together, the Nicaraguan government’s Social Action Secretariat launched a food-for-work program in the north for a mere 800 people who had been living on green mangos with salt and, if it was a good day, a tortilla. The program pays 31 córdobas (about $2.30) a day plus a ration of food for filling potholes in roads, building curbs, cleaning drainage ditches and doing other community works.

The US government earmarked US$6 million in food aid to be distributed through Nicaragua’s NGOs—bypassing the government. WFP began distributing rations of maize, cooking oil and fortified cereal to Nicaragua’s hungry as well as seeds to 40,000 small producers affected by the drought. It has been forced to make an urgent call to donor nations since it only has enough supplies to help half of those in the direst need region-wide make it through the next harvest.

Nicaragua’s umbrella organization of some 300 NGOs known as the Civil Coordinator for the Emergency and Reconstruction, plus the Agricultural Network and other organizations working in rural areas submitted a proposal for dealing with the country’s hunger and poverty to the government, the country’s political parties and the international community. The proposal starts from the analysis that "the face of Nicaragua’s economy has changed completely," "the export of agricultural raw materials is suffering the greatest crisis in its history" and "Nicaragua is only surviving today thanks to family remittances." The following are the proposal’s most important points: recapitalizing the peasantry with a package of goods for each family (a pregnant cow and sow, five hens and a rooster, seeds, a silo, small-scale irrigation equipment, etc.), specifying that these goods should be distributed in kind and their ownership individually adjudicated to the women; immediately creating a US$50 million development fund to be invested in diversifying the peasant economy; and earmarking part of the pardoned foreign debt to "capitalize the peasants."

Let them eat cake

When news of the hunger crisis exploded into the media, President Alemán was on a work tour—mixed with pleasure—through various Asian countries with an entourage of over 30 people. On his return, confused perhaps by jet lag but most visibly by alcohol, Alemán repeatedly slurred that there was no starvation in the country because the price of beans had not gone up. He also politicized the disaster, arguing that only Sandinista-governed municipalities appeared to be suffering from hunger.

In fact, today’s critical hunger was predicted as early as January by a WFP study that detected 37 municipalities with "very vulnerable" food security. It was a diplomatic way to sound the alert, since Nicaragua has no food security, attaining it has never been a goal of any of the past four governments and—at least before the publicity given the crisis—none of the three parties running for the presidency offered any concrete programs to guarantee it.

In July, the United Nations Development Program released its Human Development Report for 2001, which documents that one in every three Nicaraguans is undernourished. This figure—the worst in Central America—combined with the country’s high infant malnutrition indices demonstrate that hunger not only exists right now but is chronic, and is putting the country’s future at risk. Among the 162 countries analyzed, Nicaragua is in 106th place.

Coffee is one of the culprits

The WFP described Nicaragua, where starvation threatened an estimated 32,600 families, as the most complex case in Central America because it is caused by three separate factors: the coffee crisis in the north-central area, the drought in the north and northwest and, perversely, flooding due to non-stop rains on the Caribbean side of the country. In all cases, the few grain reserves that peasant farmers had once set aside for either eating or the next planting cycle are gone. Two years of drought from El Niño, followed by Hurricane Mitch, followed by two more years of drought have seen to that.

A good number of those who descended on Matagalpa’s park represent entire families that used to work on the now-abandoned coffee farms in the northern mountains. Plunging international coffee prices and lack of financing have brought coffee activities to a standstill and led to the bankruptcy of large, medium and small growers and the banks’ subsequent embargoing of their farms. Many such farms belonged to or worked with CONSAGRO, the consortium belonging to the Centeno Roque brothers, who caused a national disaster from which the country has yet to recover by sending Interbank into bankruptcy in August 2000 for financing their fraudulent and/or risky speculative business operations. Neither brother has yet been charged with any wrongdoing.

The roughly 10,000 Nicaraguan families that WFP estimates are affected by the coffee crisis have no work and thus no wages with which to buy food. Their starvation has nothing to do with the production of foodstuffs or any rise in food prices, but with an absolute lack of income. Their problem is aggravated by the fact that they have also had to abandon their former living quarters on farms that no longer produce coffee or plant basic grains for the workers, and where even the fruit on the trees has been stripped and devoured. The exodus to the city by some of these families—even if there they are living in indigence—is justified.

Drought on top of dryness

WFP calculates that another 22,000 families are starving because of the drought in 47 municipalities of the dry zones in the western, northern and central regions of the country. Surveys show that between half and all of the first-cycle planting of maize and beans—the peasants’ daily staple—has been lost together with other crops in these municipalities, while the livestock herds have also been severely damaged. Lacking job alternatives, these subsistence farmers literally have nothing to eat.
In its call for donor solidarity, WFP stresses that those most affected by the regional tragedy—which it ranks second only to the massive flooding caused by Hurricane Mitch in late 1998—are single mothers and their children. It should be remembered that deforestation and irrational planting practices, including stubble burning, already eroded many of the areas now affected by the drought, which were then stripped of any remaining foliage and nutrients by Mitch. These lands are ecologically vulnerable and ever less viable for production, which makes similar disasters predictable in coming years.
Meanwhile, nearly 1,400 Miskito families living in communities along the Río Prinzapolka on the Caribbean side of the country are suffering severe hunger of the "third kind." Non-stop rains in late June overflowed the river and flooded their crops of rice, maize, cassava and plantains. News of their plight did not reach Managua for nearly a month due to virtually non-existent communications systems, during which time people survived on mangos and seeds known as "ojón," used normally to feed their pigs—many of which had been swept away by the raging river.

Social insensitivity and
institutional incapacity

The hunger caused by these three phenomena can be alleviated, but the underlying causes of the coffee crisis and of the effects of drought on already devastated lands are structural problems that the next government, and the nation as a whole, will inherit. WFP and national NGOs are already working overtime to respond to people’s hunger. The Nicaraguan government could also make a major contribution toward resolving their crisis, but unlike other Central American governments, the Alemán administration was unwilling to declare a state of food emergency—or state of disaster, as defined by the new legislation on preventing, mitigating and addressing disasters. Alleviating hunger in the drought-affected areas requires only a relatively inexpensive program that is within the government’s reach, but its social insensitivity and institutional capacity prevent it from even perceiving correctly what is happening, much less responding.
Resolving the coffee crisis and its accompanying impoverishment and hunger, on the other hand, is not going to be easy for either this government or the next. The magnitude of the problem requires millions in investments. Months ago, the government sought financing from the Inter-American Development Bank and other sources, but got no encouragement. It finally found some financial support from the Taiwanese government by requesting that existing funds originally earmarked for irrigation projects be diverted to subsidize various programs for the coffee sector. The biggest project will be to give producers $25 in very soft credit for every hundredweight sack of coffee they export. It is a virtual subsidy, explained only by the fact that it is election year and political patronage is operating at full steam.
Given the macroeconomic imbalances the country is facing, however, Nicaragua’s Central Bank does not have the luxury of shifting all these Taiwanese funds to cushion the coffee sector’s crisis, because they are among the few short-term funds available to stabilize, even if only relatively, Nicaragua’s international reserves. The drop in reserves over this past year is precisely what is keeping the macro-economy in crisis and the International Monetary Fund is unwilling to let the government off the hook.
Although government speeches continue to publicize the famous $25 per hundredweight and other programs to support the coffee sector to suggest that the government is responding adequately to the crisis, the details are in the fine print. A coffee grower must meet so many eligibility conditions for this program and the support is coming through at such a trickle that even according to official declarations only US$2.5 million of the US$27 million available had been distributed by early July, benefiting only 15% of the growers.

Bolaños proposes,
the crisis disposes

Enrique Bolaños has centered his electoral campaign on a detailed economic reactivation program under the slogan "More jobs, with Bolaños it can be done!" In July, he unveiled his proposal for bolstering small and medium-sized urban businesses. It has some positive ideas, among them new legislation that would incorporate into this effort not only the micro-financing brokers but also all the small organizations that provide credit services in the communities. His proposal for dealing with the coffee-based hunger, in contrast, is pure demagogy: he would offer the producers $50 in credit for each hectare of coffee, under the delusion that they will use this money to pay hungry, unemployed agricultural workers to clean up the plantations. What the proposal fails to recognize is that the producers are already in debt with the banks and hobbled by innumerable unresolved problems. There is no way of guaranteeing that they would use new credit to provide jobs for a crop they view as more unprofitable with each passing day.

If the government really wants to prevent further deterioration of the plantations, admittedly a national economic patrimony, it would be more realistic to work out an agreement with the growers in which the state would directly subsidize the workers’ wages and food, thus also ameliorating their hunger faster. In any event, seeing how the much-touted $25 program has functioned, it is not out of line to assume that neither the credit program announced by Bolaños nor a direct subsidy program would function well. The outgoing government’s perverse mix of social insensitivity and institutional incapacity, exacerbated daily by institutionalized corruption, have rendered numerous projects, whether small, medium or large, non-viable, as international cooperation knows only too well.

The economy is just "sluggish"

The economic context in which the elections are unfolding—and to which must now be added the explosion of hunger and the long-awaited, finally announced bankruptcy of BANIC, the last of the state banks—is extremely uncertain for candidates and electorate alike.
According to joint projections by government and IMF technical experts, made in 1999 when a reprogrammed structural adjustment agreement was signed, exports should have hit US$1 billion by 2001. In practice, if Nicaragua exports US$600 million this year it will be a near miracle. The difference cannot be covered with more foreign aid, which continues to shrink. The only option is to contract the economy: reduce imports, restrict credits and cut state spending even more than has already been done over the past decade. And this is exactly what the government is doing. It is estimated that the contraction of liquidity will pull about $20 million out of circulation, not to make the government look better as it leaves office, but just to improve the imbalances and keep things from getting worse. Expert at making silk purses out of sows’ ears, Treasury Minister Esteban Duquestrada declared that there was nothing wrong with the national economy; it is just "sluggish."

A strategy to fight corruption

Independent economist Néstor Avendaño has pointed out that the public treasury and the budget cannot back up all the electoral promises of the two main candidates and that the gap will not be filled by international aid even in the medium run. The next government will therefore "have little maneuvering room in economic policy, but a lot of space for fighting corruption."
Avendaño suggested that the candidates should offer little if they want to be credible. He also reminded them that the country needs "a national corruption reduction strategy: actions must be offered to improve governmental conduct, provide more quality than quantity, and guarantee greater austerity in public spending, with full transparency in public resource management together with the probity of public officials."

Personal austerity vs.
institutional corruption

One of the big problems of Bolaños’ candidacy is his calculated timidity when it comes to attacking the corruption of a government run by the party that proposed him as its candidate, even if the popularity of that party’s political boss—President Alemán—drops further with every new poll. Bolaños’ eternal argument is that he personally lives an "austere life." However true that may be, it says nothing about his determination or ability to halt the avalanche of institutionalized corruption unleashed within the PLC, government structures, and even society as a whole, by Alemán’s unabashed example.
One of the many corruption scandals that erupted in July particularly caught the public’s attention. Media investigations followed up by the comptroller general’s office—a routine fostered by institutional weakness—revealed that PLC "medical brigades" are treating the poor and ill in party offices, giving away medications donated to the Ministry of Health by the international community and handing out prescriptions bearing Bolaños’ photo. This extraction of medicines from MINSA warehouses, on direct order from the presidential offices, would help explain the shortages that health centers around the country have been experiencing in recent months. In January alone, a million córdobas worth of medical supplies were reportedly transferred from the state health system to the governing party. Bolaños’ cautious reaction to the breaking news and his lack of firmness when it began to be verified undermined his credibility and increased the skepticism about just how independent he will really be from Alemán.
Such skepticism is utterly valid, because Alemán loves to control and concentrate power, and has no intention of giving up the practice. The Liberal convention held on July 11 ratified with very few changes the list of National Assembly candidates he had personally selected days earlier in his hacienda—without Bolaños present. At the convention, Alemán also made it clear that he will not only be automatically occupying a lifetime legislative seat thanks to the pact with the FSLN, but that he aspires to preside over the National Assembly in the upcoming legislative period. It was the opening salvo of his lobbying to ensure that he control not only the Liberal bench but the legislative body itself, assuming the PLC gets a majority of seats. From that space he will be able to negotiate more favorable new addenda to the pact with Daniel Ortega whether or not the latter wins the presidency, since losing presidential candidates get an Assembly seat by default if they get a certain minimal percentage of the vote. Alemán can even be expected to negotiate the calling of constituent elections to move forward the 2006 elections—in which he has already made clear he intends to run again since the Constitution only prevents Presidents from running for consecutive reelection or serving more than two terms of office.

Another massive
July 19 celebration

There were great expectations that Ortega would make important announcements at the FSLN’s celebration of the 22nd anniversary of the revolution that overthrew the Somoza dictatorship. He had promised months earlier that he would release the names of his future government’s Cabinet members at the July 19 event and there were even rumors that the appointments would include some surprises. There was also speculation that he would announce his plan of government. Nonetheless, the announcements failed to materialize. Since all polls show Ortega beating Bolaños on the first round, the FSLN’s strategy is to "make no waves." There might be some "special effects" for the final days of the campaign, but the sea will remain calm as long as the trend is favorable.
The massive activity, attended by an estimated 100,000 people, demonstrated the FSLN’s continuing capacity to call out its grass roots, despite a series of exclusions, arbitrary actions and accumulated disappointments. This year’s multitude was greater than in recent years, fed by the heat of the electoral contest and the certainty of the FSLN’s base that "historic revenge" is close at hand with the return to government that the polls promise. The "youth festival" atmosphere that dominated the celebration as well as Ortega’s speech were aimed at the Sandinista grassroots, with little attention paid to the non-Sandinista majority of society.

In the "promised land"
without a program

In his speech, Ortega repeated yet again his ambiguous aim of "promoting a radical change in the constitutional framework" and his rosy slogan of "sowing love, love and more love to reach the promised land." His words lacked direction and grab, but that hardly mattered to the crowd since the main objective of most of those participating was to come together and have fun under their red and black flag.

So far, the FSLN has not only made no waves; it has yet to make a ripple. It is offering nothing concrete, no detailed proposal for urban and rural production equivalent to what its adversary Enrique Bolaños is putting forward. A former official of the Sandinista government during the eighties thinks that this goes beyond the desire not to upset anyone. In his view, the FSLN leaders "have moved away from or become separated from all those who have been working with the government over the past 11 years. The Liberals, on the other hand, have people on their team who have participated in the last two governments, people who know what projects exist, what international cooperation wants, and can thus put together more concrete proposals. The FSLN leadership is on the moon—or perhaps in the ‘promised land’—not only because it doesn’t know what’s going on but also because it hasn’t wanted to listen to anybody. The only ones it is listening to during the campaign are a few former Sandinista officials who distanced themselves from the public sphere to dedicate themselves to their private businesses. As a result, the FSLN is much less prepared on economic issues today than it was in 1979."

The FSLN is its own worst enemy

After the Alemán-Ortega pact excluded all competitors and following the Liberal government’s regrettable "final binge" of corruption, the FSLN is in the best political position to return to government. It may never enjoy such favorable conditions again. Nonetheless, anyone who has followed the FSLN’s actions in recent years knows that it has pinned more hopes on its "militarized" organizational capacity to control and/or influence the Supreme Electoral Council structures—right down to the voting tables—than creatively exploiting such favorable political conditions.
The FSLN could still lose the elections despite its advantages—both those that its Electoral Command Central has measured and calculated and those that the errors of the Liberal government and its titular head keep tossing its way. Losing to such an elderly and unpopular politician as Bolaños, formerly Vice President of a government so discredited by ineptitude and corruption and now its official candidate, would not be the result of the US government’s shameful interference. Nor will it be the result of campaign funding by the national and international Right, or of any new "viper-mongering" by the Catholic hierarchy or the power of the fear-mongering that the anti-Sandinista propaganda is disseminating.

It will be the result of the lack of democracy and new leadership within the FSLN itself thanks to its current mediocre and self-serving leaders. It will be the result of Daniel Ortega’s hollow messianic drive, the ongoing exclusion of the ideas of all those who have become "separated" over these years, and the excessive cockiness with which the FSLN has abused its grass roots, appealing to them with emotional decisions and demanding near religious loyalty to its candidates. This is not the road to any promised land, and certainly not to good government.

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