Envío Digital
Central American University - UCA  
  Number 254 | Septiembre 2002



Alemán Is Losing Half the Country

Another aspect of the gross political crisis involving Arnoldo Alemán has aroused particular passions on the Caribbean side of Nicaragua, a region he won handily in 1996.In round fter round of a legal-institutional conflict that has been dragging on since May, Alemán keeps losing points in that half of the country.

Johnny Hodgson

The reports reaching us on the Caribbean side of Nicaragua are dripping with details of corruption, money laundering, hidden treasures, unpredictable alliances, political conspiracies, vote buying and much more.

Alemán’s future and
the future of our region

In neighborhoods and communities of the North Atlantic Autonomous Region (RAAN), people are discussing what will happen to Arnoldo Alemán and his cohorts now that the evidence is piling up on all the acts of corruption committed during his government. The 47 National Assembly votes needed to strip Alemán and his daughter of their parliamentary immunity are a topic of discussion all over the Caribbean and signatures are being collected in the streets of Bilwi (Puerto Cabezas) petitioning the legislators to vote in favor. In the South Atlantic Autonomous Region (RAAS), too, pots and pans have been banged at 6 in the evening and marches against corruption are being planned.

Just how Alemán’s fate will affect the future of the autonomous regional governments sworn in on August 24 is constantly being debated, since the two are intimately linked for us. The pivotal moments for Alemán so far this year have had palpable repercussions on political, legal and economic events in Nicaragua’s Caribbean region.

The previous governments in the two regions completed their term on May 4, but that same day the Liberal faction of the Supreme Electoral Council (CSE) used blatantly illegal maneuvers to install an exclusively Liberal executive board in the RAAS and suspend the election of the board in the RAAN. Both autonomous governments thus went months without a functioning Regional Council, coordinator or board. The CSE’s negligence, ineptitude and disastrously politicized operations are thanks particularly to the openly partial attitudes of CSE president Roberto Rivas, who many analysis believe is among a long line of officials preparing to flee Nicaragua before the weight of justice falls on them for involvement in Alemán’s corruption.

Will the Bolaños government
follow the ethnocentric tradition?

Like most other Nicaraguans, we coast people were simply expectant at the beginning of Enrique Bolaños’ administration, watching to see if the fight against corruption he proclaimed during his electoral campaign would go all the way or fizzle out into empty rhetoric. On his Sunday radio program, Bluefields teacher William Schwartz predicted back in January that "if President Enrique Bolaños engages in a genuine fight against corruption, it will bring him into serious conflict with Arnoldo Alemán." And Schwartz was right.

That anticipated confrontation began as soon as Alemán was voted president of the National Assembly in January. As Domingo Trusdale of Kukra Hill sees it, "Alemán’s objective was to tie President Bolaños’ hands and continue governing from the National Assembly." Taking advantage of his near-absolute control of the governing Constitutionalist Liberal Party, Alemán flanked himself on the parliamentary board with several of his most loyal allies. This was a repeat performance of what he had done as President of the country, when he placed equally loyal cohorts in the Supreme Court, the Supreme Electoral Council, the Office of Comptroller General, the new Public Ministry and other pivotal government bodies, giving them copious secret stipends in tax-free dollars.
The attention of the Caribbean inhabitants has been gripped even more strongly, however, by the question of whether President Bolaños will follow his predecessors in excluding coast people from the so-called national government or will promote the creation of a state that recognizes the Nicaraguan people as multiethnic, as the Constitution establishes. Enrique Bolaños has never had or even sought a social base in the Caribbean. Most coast people see his government as "ethnocentric" because in addition to totally excluding us from any important ministerial posts, he has not even thought to seek an adviser on coast issues. We find ourselves with a government that knows nothing about fully half of the national territory and its peoples, and has no idea—or perhaps even any interest in learning—how to achieve development in a multiethnic society.
It has been announced in Managua that US$36 million will be spent to construct sports installations and other activities for the Central American Games to be hosted by Nicaragua in 2005, yet not one dollar of that money, not one activity or one installation is earmarked for the Coast. That fact has not gone unnoticed by those of us who still remember vividly how we were totally ignored during the 1972 World Baseball championships. This is only one example of something that we instinctively know and feel: while we surely need a transparent state free of corruption, we also need a multiethnic state free of discrimination if there is to be genuine national unity.

Round one:
Personal control in the RAAS tightened

When the Channel 6 case sent the first of Alemán’s intimate friends and close collaborators to prison and others fleeing the country, the US government began to investigate the personal holdings of a man some claim to be the wealthiest in Central America. That was when Arnoldo Alemán felt the solid rock of his power begin to tremble, but there was not enough proof to shake it loose.

It was also when his grip began to weaken in our autonomous regions. Following the March 3 elections for the 45-member Regional Councils, preparations got underway for the inaugural session of the new governments on May 4, when the CSE president would deliver their credentials, preside over the election of the new 7-member boards, then swear everyone into their elected posts. Alemán detected a strategic opportunity to buttress his strength by tightening his grip on the threads of political-economic power on this other half of the national territory, shutting Enrique Bolaños out of the Caribbean. He therefore immediately set about guaranteeing that the new Regional Council leadership would defend his interests.

He anticipated no problem in the RAAS because the PLC had won an absolute majority and thus did not even need an alliance much less CSE manipulation to pack the board with Liberals. All he did there was shamelessly ensure that two recent immigrants from the Pacific would be respectively nominated as board president and regional coordinator—a post commonly referred to in the coast as governor—simply because of their proven personal loyalty. Guy Cox, a PLC convention delegate and regional party vice president, now admits that Alemán got reticent costeño Liberal council members to lend themselves to that imposition with his standard method: lavishing them with cash, vehicles, trips to Miami and other perks.

As events unfolded, some of the local Liberals who participated in the May 4 sellout began feeling increasingly uncomfortable about it. They expressed concern about Alemán’s motivations in imposing as maximum authorities in the region Liberals from the Pacific who knew so little about the life and aspirations of the multiethnic Caribbean population.

One such local is Reverend Rayfield Hodgson, elected to the Liberal bench in the recent elections but a representative for PIM, his own coast organization, in previous Councils. He even served then as regional coordinator, an experience that taught him the ways of the PLC bench. As Rev. Hodgson, admits, "Alemán only designated Raúl Martínez and Francisco Sacasa for these posts to defend his own interests against those of Bolaños. This means importing Managua’s conflicts to the Caribbean, which is not in our interest." As a result of that "error," he concludes, "we must now walk the streets with our heads bowed."

Round two:
RAAN session suspended

In the RAAN, an alliance between the newly elected Regional Council members from the FSLN and those from the Miskito organization YATAMA was enough to create a majority. This clearly called for special institutional support from the CSE magistrates loyal to Alemán.

On the morning of May 4, all seven CSE magistrates flew to Bilwi, capital of the RAAN, to perform their official duties of installing the new regional government. Alemán accompanied them, although in no official capacity. Days earlier, according to YATAMA leader Brooklyn Rivera, Alemán had sent emissaries to offer the equivalent of some $15,000 for the vote of any YATAMA or FSLN councilor willing to sell out to Alemán in the election of regional coordinator and the board members. Rivera claimed that only hours before the inaugural session began Alemán had personally offered him perks if he could deliver the four votes he still needed to ensure a loyal board and coordinator.
Gathered in a sweltering hall, the 45 new councilors received their credentials, took the oath of office and then, together with the RAAN’s 3 National Assembly representatives, who also sit on the Regional Council, opened the nominations for board president. The traditional system is that the CSE president presides over the election of the board, then turns the chair over to the new board president for the election of the regional coordinator. That is the cue for the CSE to take its leave and fly on down to Bluefields to repeat the performance later in the morning.

Contrary to Alemán’s scenario, YATAMA voted with the FSLN, and FSLN councilor Juan Saballos was elected board president with 27 votes. Instead of accepting that clear majority, Rivas ordered that the vote be repeated, arguing that this post required a 60% vote, while the other six seats only needed a simple majority. Those present tried to show Rivas that his ruling concretely contradicts the Autonomy Statute, but he turned a deaf ear. In the end, he not only refused to recognize Saballos’ election, but suspended the rest of the session for three days despite a shower of protests both in the hall and in the street, where a sizable crowd had gathered, anticipating trouble.

Arnoldo Alemán’s declarations that same night in Bluefields made it clear that his faithful friend and ally Roberto Rivas would not betray the trust Alemán had put in his shabby tactics. With his accustomed brazenness following a few drinks, Alemán reportedly bragged to those at his table that "what we don’t win we mess up, because Jalisco never loses and when it does it takes what it wants anyway!"

Round three:
Rivas justifies himself

In a press release published in the national newspapers, Roberto Rivas stated that he had gone to Bilwi on May 4 to comply with Law 28, the Autonomy Statute of the Atlantic Coast Regions. Despite submitting the election of the Regional Council’s board president to a vote three times, he explained, no candidate had received the required votes, with 27 of the 48 Regional Council members voting for one council member and 21 for another. He said he had been forced to suspend the election because the president had to be elected with a 60% majority of 29 votes.

Hazel Law, a Miskito lawyer from the RAAN who played an active role in the original autonomy process, retorted that "Magistrate Rivas’ excuse for suspending the session is infantile and openly seeks to satisfy Arnoldo Alemán’s desire to control the Council and the government as a whole in the RAAN." She explained that article 26 of Law 28 is as clear as day in establishing that "the quorum for Regional Council meetings will be formed with the presence of over half of its members and resolutions must have a favorable vote of more than half of those present, save special cases established in the Regulation." And as anyone who has heard the eternal clamor of coast people knows, the Autonomy Statute, approved in 1987, still does not have said regulation. "On July 8, 1993," recalled Law, "the Regional Councils submitted to the Presidency of the Republic a proposal for a regulatory law that they had drafted jointly. The centralist government, however, never approved that regulation." It bears mentioning that at that time Violeta Chamorro still had three years of her term to serve, so the blame for the lack of enabling legislation cannot be put entirely on Alemán. Centralist governments that see the Caribbean coast as nothing but a treasure chest of natural resources, seemingly unpeopled, are nothing new.

Rivas’ unilateral decision, on Alemán’s orders, to suspend the session triggered a crisis in the RAAN and within the Supreme Electoral Council itself. This, in turn, created a crisis in the RAAS, where Alemán thought he had everything sewn up.

Round four:
No CSE quorum in the RAAS

When the CSE showed up hours late for the session in Bluefields, it no longer had a quorum because the three FSLN magistrates were boycotting Rivas’ manipulation. Aware that the CSE plenary had to be present for the accreditation and election to take place, and still wanting to maintain the appearance of legality, Rivas called Managua to quickly send two alternate magistrates so that the show could go on. This stopgap measure produced an irregularity verified in the certification issued by the CSE proceedings secretary, which stated that the alternates sent had not been accredited by the magistrates they were supposedly replacing. While article 12 of the Electoral Law indeed establishes that "the Supreme Electoral Council quorum is formed with five of its seven members," article 6 states that the alternate magistrates’ function will be "to substitute for the temporary absence of any full magistrate, who will designate the person to cover his or her absence" (our italics).

Round five:
Alemán loses in the RAAN

When Roberto Rivas returned to Bilwi on May 7 to reopen the session he had suspended three days earlier, he did not even go into town. He remained at the airport then returned to Managua, where he announced the indefinite suspension of the election of the board and regional coordinator. He gave some flimsy excuse but it was simply part of his strategy to gain time until the correlation of forces in the RAAN’s Regional Council could be shifted in Alemán’s favor.

Street demonstrations erupted in Bilwi and various appeals were immediately filed against the CSE’s actions in both the RAAN and the RAAS, which the respective appeals courts upheld. The Supreme Court as well found itself forced to contradict the CSE president. It handed down a resolution in June establishing that Juan Saballos, the candidate for RAAN Regional Council president who had received the majority of the votes on May 4, had been duly elected according to procedures used in all three previous elections. It further ordered the CSE magistrates to return to Bilwi to preside over the election of the remaining posts.
The CSE accepted this ruling, but dragged its feet in complying with it. The population thus took to the streets of Bilwi again, angrily demanding that the CSE get on with it, which it finally did. A member of the YATAMA bench was elected regional coordinator, leaving the PLC with no leadership role in the RAAN’s regional government.

"The ease with which Arnoldo bought votes in past years is coming to an end," commented a YATAMA leader in Bluefields. "The Americans seem to have turned their back on him and he could end up in jail, so who’s going to want to ally with him now? Nobody. It looks like his only friends left are his relatives, the public minister, two comptrollers, the members of the PLC’s National Assembly bench who feel implicated as accomplices in the corruption and the Catholic Church hierarchy, possibly also accomplices."
The Supreme Court took nearly three months, until July 31, to hand down its simple and obvious decision on the CSE quorum problem affecting the South Atlantic. César Quinto Gómez, the FSLN’s regional political secretary, believes that the delay was because the population in the RAAS did not pressure it or demonstrate in the street. When the court finally did issue a resolution, it was to establish that the CSE plenary must also go to Bluefields to accredit and swear in the councilors elected on March 3, and chair the election of the board.

But by that time, Alemán was on the ropes. President Bolaños and the acting attorney general had just explained on nationwide TV and radio how the former President, his relatives and buddies had laundered US$100 million stolen from the state and how he personally had charged $1.8 million on state credit cards for his engagement, wedding and honeymoon in luxury hotels and the purchase of exotic rugs and jewelry for his bride.

Round six:
The PLC bench in the RAAS splits

The angry street demonstrations in the RAAN against Alemán and Rivas, the fact that the PLC ended up with no control in the Regional Council there, plus the August 7 revelations about Alemán’s massive theft of state funds all gave Liberal council members in the RAAS pause for thought. A number of them decided it was no longer advisable to ask how high and what’s in it for me when the caudillo in the oversized red shirt said jump.

By then, President Bolaños had made contact with Rev. Hodgson, Guy Cox and eight other Liberal council members from the RAAS who were rethinking their position, and they soon began to identify themselves as the Ethnic Liberal Bench. As this group was obviously in the minority and unable to create a government or even determine the election of the board members, they approached the 14-member FSLN bench and the 2-member YATAMA bench, both of which were amenable to an alliance. This gave them 26 votes, 2 more than the simple majority required. They then set about drawing up plans that would benefit the population and awaited the arrival of the CSE magistrates to elect a governor and Council board.
Their stated objective is to coordinate with President Bolaños in the fight against corruption, and especially in the implementation of the Autonomy Statute to create a National Multiethnic State of Unity in Diversity, in which coast people enjoy full participation. "Our struggle is unstoppable; we are going to push forward towards genuine autonomy, in which the rights of coast people are respected," claimed Alejandro Mejía, chief of the Ethnic Liberal Bench. To that end, the three benches formed what they are calling the Strategic Pro-Autonomy Alliance.

When Arnoldo Alemán found out about the alliance, he immediately attempted to bring the "reflecting" Liberals back into his orbit, but it was too late. The system of offering attractive perks that Alemán had used in May and on many earlier occasions had run its course.
Eduardo López, a distinguished coast Liberal from Río Kama, explains: "With all we’ve seen since the lid came off the guaca, plus the ten thousand other checks the government says it has, Liberal councilors are afraid to continue selling their consciences for perks because they risk ending up in prison like Alemán’s friends." Clearly amazed, he added, "It’s incredible how Alemán’s corruption led coast people to unite for the first time to form an autonomous government in which his followers aren’t calling the shots. Perhaps now, without Alemán’s impositions, we can begin to work with honesty and transparency in favor of the Caribbean coast’s own interests."

Round seven:
Alemán keeps trying to buy people off

Arnoldo Alemán was not going to go down with out a fight. He could not let the CSE go to Bluefields to comply with the Supreme Court mandate with the correlation of forces so stacked against him. It was exactly for such eventualities that he had placed his own people in that branch of government. According to Alejandro Mejía, anytime the issue of going to Bluefields came up in the CSE during August, three of the four Liberal magistrates—Silvio Américo Calderón excluded—broke quorum to prevent the trip. The three FSLN magistrates plus an alternate magistrate finally went on August 24 and oversaw the election of the new Regional Council board, which was of course not favorable to Alemán.

The Liberal magistrates were furious, but the RAAS civil society showed its support for the new attitude in the Council with a demonstration in the streets of Bluefields on September 6. As the conflict was thus wrapping up, the "other" Liberal bench—headed by Alemán loyalists from Managua, Rivas, Masaya and Estelí and only two from Bluefields—was still being tele-directed from Managua to offer goodies to any council members in the Strategic Alliance, particularly the 10 Liberals, to scuttle this option.

Will there be a KO?

This scenario in both the North and South Atlantic Autonomous Regions, in which the newly elected parliamentarians are expressing willingness to support Bolaños, means that Arnoldo Alemán and his friends have lost control of half the national territory.

"None of us can be bought," claims Rayfield Hodgson. "They called me to participate in four meetings, and I didn’t go because I now know what’s on offer and I want nothing to do with it. We sacrificed our self-esteem and intelligence to please the party on May 4 and they sucked us into a shameful conflict. We cannot continue listening to those who want us to defend outside interests; we cannot continue doing what we did before. I don’t have any guaca, I barely have enough to eat, and with the three months that I’ve gone without a salary because the CSE left us without a government, they’ve cut off my electricity, telephone, cable, everything. But I’m moving forward."
The last word is not in on the Caribbean coast any more than in Nicaragua as a whole, but many things have begun to change. The consummation of Alemán’s loss of control in the two Autonomous Regions is at hand. This immense territory with its wealth of natural resources has gone dry for Alemán but is fertile, at least so far, for President Bolaños. He won overwhelmingly here last November virtually without knowing any one, but appears to be starting to take an interest in our region. The council members from the three benches in the RAAS who have decided to support him believe that the best way to do so is by insisting on compliance with the Political Constitution and the Autonomy Statute. Nonetheless, public opinion, which has every reason to be skeptical, is watching closely to see how solid or fragile the new Strategic Pro-Autonomy Alliance will end up being in the new regional government.

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