Envío Digital
Central American University - UCA  
  Number 252 | Julio 2002




Envío team


On June 14-15, the Central American University’s Institute of Surveys and Opinion Polls (IDESO) measured the perceptions of corruption among a sample of Managua’s urban population. A resounding 97% of those polled said they agree that the fight against corruption should go all the way, no matter who goes down in the process. The same percentage think that government officials responsible for corrupt acts should pay for their crimes not only with a prison sentence but also by returning the public goods they took. Close to the same number (95.3%) believe that an official proven to have engaged in corruption should be prohibited from ever occupying a public post again. While 59% of the capital’s residents perceive that the fight against corruption is generating political instability, 82.2% do not want to see Bolaños cut any deal that lets the country’s most powerful corrupt figures off the hook in exchange for being allowed to govern in peace. The National Assembly was assessed as the most corrupt institution, with only a 3.7 rating on an ascending cleanliness scale of 1 to 10, followed by the Catholic Church, recently implicated in at least one of the former government’s scams, with 4.8. The presidency received the highest mark, but still only got a 6.7 rating. Even in the midst of the current anti-corruption war, one response in particular indicated how deeply rooted the culture of tolerance toward corruption still is, with 0% saying they agreed with the following statement: "It doesn’t matter if an official robs as long as he does something for the poor."


The XXI Summit of the Heads of State and of Government of the Central American Integration System was held in the colonial Nicaraguan city of Granada on June 20. Given the US and European Union pressure on the region’s countries to speed up integration by conditioning the signing of free trade agreements with Central America on it, more progress was made on the issue in this summit than in all previous ones. The summit’s most concrete accomplishment was Costa Rica’s entry into the regional customs union, which is the first step toward regional union and must be ready by the end of 2003.


President Bolaños met with Costa Rica’s new President Abel Pacheco in Masaya on June 19 to discuss how to coordinate socioeconomic development projects on their common border, especially in the tourist sector. "I have come to bury all the mistrust in a mountain of vigorón and put out all the fires with a hose full of tiste," said President Pacheco, winning over the Nicaraguan population with his cordiality, not to mention his show of respect for its popular culinary traditions. (Vigorón is crumbled fried pork rind and cassava chunks served on a banana leaf with a vinegary cabbage salad and tiste is a thick drink based on ground maize.) Pacheco and Bolaños propose to put behind them the dispute over armed Costa Rican border guards navigating on the Río San Juan, which borders the two countries but is sovereign Nicaragua territory. The new Presidents want to develop a "good neighbor policy" that excludes signing any agreements regarding this conflict, which is already a few years old, much less taking it to the International Court at The Hague in a legal process that would be extremely costly for both sides.


The Nicaraguan Resistance Party (PRN), which grew out of the "contra" military organization that waged the US-financed war against the Sandinista government in the eighties, proposed the setting up of a Truth Commission to investigate the killings and massacres that occurred in Nicaragua over the past 25 years (1973-1996). The proposed commission would consist of three members of civil society, one representative from the Catholic Church, another from the Protestant churches, plus representatives from the country’s human rights organizations. Arnoldo Alemán and Cardinal Obando backed the initiative.

President Bolaños called it a positive idea but not a priority, declaring that in any event it should wait until after the "war against corruption" has been won, which he calculated would take up his five years in office. "We cannot open too many fronts," said Bolaños. The commission’s promoters say that one of its objectives is to prohibit those found responsible for war crimes from running for election or holding any kind of public office. The PRN believes this is the right moment to set up the commission because the country is between elections and the context of the war against corruption would favor condemnation of what it considers "the worst act of corruption committed against society: war crimes."


In his inauguration speech at the International Aid Coordination Forum on June 18, President Bolaños proposed to the international community that "insofar as possible and in a reasonable period of time" they agree to centralize their donations and other economic support into "a single state fund," contributing to "programs more than projects." Bolaños recognized that in the absence of a national development strategy the international aid contributions have been filling holes in response to requests from ministers, mayor’s offices and NGOs, thus fostering dispersed projects and hindering the implementation of more integrated programs. This initiative, which like others of the Bolaños government is aimed at "ordering" the state, is also conditioned by the government’s jealousy of the significant funds received by NGOs in Nicaragua. This shift in counterparts from the government to the NGOs was accentuated during the last years of Alemán’s term due to the distrust that his institutionalized corruption triggered in the international community. The IDB representative in Nicaragua declared that deciding in favor of the "single fund" idea would require the guarantee of absolute transparency in the use of public resources and solid controls in all state institutions.


President Bolaños announced what he called "good news" to the country on July 9: Nicaragua has oil and natural gas deposits. This information has been suspected and perhaps even known since 1926, but the resource was never exploited. Following scientific studies and preliminary explorations with the collaboration of Norway, Japan, France and the Inter-American Development Bank, it has now been established that there are three petroleum zones in Nicaragua: two offshore—in the Pacific Ocean and the Caribbean Sea—and one on land in the southwestern department of Rivas. According to initial estimates, the reserves discovered guarantee daily yields of 50,000 barrels of petroleum and 2 million cubic feet of natural gas. President Bolaños opened bidding for the further exploration and exploitation of these resources, which it is estimated will provide Nicaragua $300 million a year in benefits starting in 2007, the earliest date extraction could get underway.

Although government authorities assure that the project’s initial exploration phase will have an ecological emphasis, environmental groups asked the government to suspend it and reflect, warning of the predictable and irreversible environmental damage that it will trigger in fragile zones with a wealth of biodiversity. They also argued that Nicaragua has strong possibilities of achieving development through other, more eco-friendly and renewable energy sources, based on the sun, wind, and organic fuels such as biomass and tempate.


The backdrop to the tax reform controversy that caused a dive in President Bolaños’ popularity in June included other serious economic problems in which the government lost further credibility and popular backing. The one with the greatest national impact was the rise in energy rates. Following a tense debate between Unión Fenosa, the Spanish company that now owns the electricity distribution grid, and the presidency and various other state institutions, the rate hike was set at 8.31%, less than originally announced and feared (31%), but still more than the country’s recessive situation can handle. Unión Fenosa argues that it has not yet been able to show any profit from its controversial purchase of the state-owned ENEL. This privatization is only now being revealed as another blunder inflicted on the country by the Alemán government, in this case with a large share of responsibility falling on Enrique Bolaños, who as Vice President chaired the ENEL board when the privatization contract was negotiated and signed with Unión Fenosa.

The tensions under which this process was developed and the manipulation and pressure applied by the IDB in its advisory role right up to the signing—which top officials of the Bolaños government acknowledged in June— only added to problems caused by the obsolete national company’s lack of appeal to any international investor and the fact that Nicaragua applied a carbon copy of Argentina’s since discredited privatization model.

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