Perverse Political Ambitions Behind Institutional Masks
As threatened, the public prosecutor has included President Bolaños in his accusations of electoral crimes. Will he and Vice President Rizo renounce their immunity? Will both be tried? Will they be sentenced or absolved? And will the Assembly really strip Alemán’s immunity? The most
perverse political ambitions underlie today’s farcical
respect for the state’s fragile institutions and “legalities.”
If there is a positive side to the crisis Nicaragua has been slogging through since the change of government and launching of the anti-corruption struggle, it is an apparent move to resolve contradictions institutionally, not with violence. But this progress is sparking a whole new crisis for three fundamental reasons. The first is that some of the institutions are new and the older ones are fragile. The second is that the political bosses of the two dominant parties have learned to disguise their interests with speeches defending institutionality verily as they manipulate the institutions through handpicked top and middle-level officials. And, finally, the absence of an institutional culture within the population encourages passivity and even a temptation to prefer effective violence over ineffectual institutions, to sort out the continual and ever more exhausting conflicts between these two politicians once and for all.
Thread by thread
Former President Arnoldo Alemán has been finding himself trapped by this emerging focus on institutional solutions, but he still has more than enough institutional power at his command to trap others. No other political figure in Nicaragua had a clearer “institutional’ strategy last January than Alemán upon relinquishing the presidential offices to Bolaños: continue governing from the National Assembly until 2006, when he becomes eligible to run for President again. His strategy has been coming unraveled thread by thread, however. It started in March, when an avalanche of suspicions and charges of corruption against him began gathering speed, and peaked in mid-September, when he was voted out of his post as National Assembly president.
Now, a full year after the presidential elections last November, Alemán is in a spot no one even imagined a year ago: about to be stripped of his parliamentary immunity so he can answer in court for these colossal acts of corruption. President Bolaños’ fight against corruption and his focus on Alemán and a number of officials who either dipped into the till with him or fronted for him have revealed Alemán’s extraordinary maneuvering skills, fed by a political vocation that is, in a word, boundless.
Retooling the strategyAs the institutional wheels to strip his immunity ground slowly forward, Alemán began to flaunt a new stance. He would go to prison—as a political prisoner like Mandela, he bragged—and continue his career behind bars, leaving his Constitutionalist Liberal Party (PLC) in the hands of a collegial leadership.
Although Alemán has done and will go on doing everything he can to avoid prison, the adverse political setting has forced him to retool his strategy: if he ends up unable to govern from the legislative branch, he will simply have to do it from jail. Cornered and threatened, he has revealed a very destructive and very effective political philosophy: if I go down, Bolaños goes down with me; and if he stops me being reelected, I’ll stop him, too. President Bolaños described his adversary’s two principles as “Me or nobody!” and “After me, the deluge!” So far refusing exile and political asylum in the belief that even in prison Nicaragua represents his safest refuge, Alemán has witnessed the unraveling of many of the threads—threats, blackmail, bribes and proposals—he wove to entangle both the executive branch and the FSLN.
Day after dayEnrique Bolaños’ strategy started emerging with his first speeches, in which he presented himself as a President determined to bury the lousy image he earned as Alemán’s loyal, closed-mouth Vice President, and build a new image as a statesman. He laid out his goal of fighting for a new institutionality in the country to put an end to what he called the “three vices of Nicaraguan political culture”: caudillismo, corruption and the perverse use of power.” Since then, he has repeatedly stressed the links between corruption, poverty and unemployment.
Bolaños has fought day after day, not always in the most effective way, to maintain the credibility of his strategy and use it to moralize and generate hope. The task is not an easy one. The President was apparently unprepared for the degree of resistance Alemán and his supporters would put up, or the economic debacle and the pillage his Cabinet members would find upon assuming their posts. Those two crude realities have not convinced Bolaños to modify his strategy, which is part and parcel of his own austere, straight-up personal style. They have, however, been moving him toward an excessively accommodating pragmatism, with moments of ambiguity, inertia and even ingenuousness that could end up tarnishing and even derailing his strategy, bringing it to an untimely demise. It does not help that he is surrounded by ministers with little political savvy and a court of costly and overly technocratic consultants and advisers, while his adversaries are nothing if not shrewd. And to top it all, the country is currently flailing in an obvious recession that is wearing down faith in the effectiveness of this strange new strategy.
A highly endangered strategyPresident Bolaños’ anti-corruption message and the historically unprecedented cases already tried in these first months of the anti-corruption fight have greased all the country’s institutional gears. Absolutely all of the institutions, on all sides of the fight, are following the lead provided by the executive branch and the Office of Attorney General and are scrambling onto the anti-corruption bandwagon for one reason or another. In the lead is a formally new institution, the Public Ministry, which is actually a spin-off from the Office of Attorney General, in which the division of labor and formal purpose between the two is still a bit confusing. The only thing about which there is no confusion is that former Attorney General Julio Centeno Gómez, who spun off with the new ministry to be its Public Prosecutor General, is loyal to his bones to Alemán. Behind him, all the high and mid-level officials, figureheads and spokespersons of the other institutions are zealously poking around for corruption candidates to blow the whistle on, for motives that range from honorable to suspect to say the least.
What does this all mean? Is Nicaragua finally going through a transition stage toward greater institutionality? Or, following the de-institutionalizing pact between Daniel Ortega and Arnoldo Alemán, are we simply witnessing the further stunting of the institutions by using them as a cover for engaging in outmoded and self-serving politics? Everything we see day after day suggests the latter. The political game in Nicaragua is still dominated by corruption, caudillismo and perversion in the use of power, however much it may disguise itself as institutionality.
Maneuver after maneuverThe FSLN’s former strategy and its justification unraveled in the November 2001 presidential elections. Up to then its leaders had based their arguments on the old principle that “the end justifies the means,” in which the end was Ortega’s victory and the means the agreements in the Ortega-Alemán pact, designed as a shield for the corruption and immunity-impunity of their two groups.
Daniel Ortega’s third resounding electoral defeat, despite having sold the FSLN’s soul to the devil to create the conditions that would supposedly guarantee him victory, left the party paralyzed and strategyless for months. During that period, it tactically supported either Alemán’s strategy or Bolaños’, as suited it at the time. Even doing nothing, however, the FSLN still controls important quotas of institutional power, which was the price of its soul.
In the PLC, meanwhile, the anti-corruption fight was causing tremendous overall erosion as well as changes in the anti-Sandinista views that had kept Liberalism glued together while the Bolaños-Alemán split was shifting the correlation of political forces. These problems made it easier for the FSLN to define and implement a “new” strategy. Without giving up the chance to hatch any short-term schemes along the way, this longer-term strategy appears aimed at a now-familiar end: Daniel Ortega’s fourth presidential candidacy. The means seem not to have changed much either: a succession of opportunist agreements and conspiracies in all directions as needed and/or possible.
The definition Any reflection on the disconcerting political events of recent weeks must be set within this framework of modified strategies. The task is not an easy one and is certainly not very uplifting.
begins to take shape
On October 1, one of the biggest institutional crises—that of the Supreme Electoral Council (CSE)— since the March elections in the Caribbean Coast was quelled through a meeting between erstwhile archenemies Daniel Ortega and Cardinal Obando. Their “resolution” was to turn a blind eye to former CSE president Roberto Rivas’ pending corruption suit and his inept and blatantly politicized running of this fourth branch of government, giving the nod to his reelection as president and FSLN-identified magistrate Emett Lang’s as vice president.
This mind-boggling deal unleashed a torrent of epithets from political analysts such as “political confabulation,” “shoddy agreement,” “new pact” and “obscene arrangement.” The newspaper cartoons were even starker. By the time Rivas was reelected, the only public institutional support he could count on came from the Catholic institutionality represented by the cardinal.
Among the many pending tasks for the CSE magistrates is one strategic to the current dispute that is eroding Liberalism. They must decide which version of the PLC is legal: the one organized by the executive office in June around Vice President José Rizo—a project that has not exactly taken off—or the one that continues to obsessively defend Alemán. Putting off this crucial decision gives the CSE a major negotiating card, which the October 1 agreement places in the hands of both Arnoldo Alemán, through Cardinal Obando’s overprotected protégé Rivas, and Daniel Ortega, through the loyal Lang.
The mask of dialogueDaniel Ortega did not offer his first declarations on the Rivas deal until October 9, when, with a straight face, he justified it as “an FSLN contribution to institutionality.” Opening another front, he also proposed a meeting involving “all the country’s forces”—naturally including Alemán—to seek a “National Consensus.” The idea, which would give Alemán a shot in the arm, had a familiar ring. Since June, Alemán’s wing of the PLC has been desperately proposing a three-way national dialogue in order to find some solution that would keep Alemán from having to face the courts and prison.
New threads were clearly being woven into the political web: the FSLN supporting and being supported by the Catholic institution and Alemán’s wing of the PLC being supported by both.
If Nicaragua’s institutions are fragile, however, so is its memory. Ortega’s proposal obtained immediate support not only from Alemán’s backers and the Catholic hierarchy, but also from some important independent figures and even some perspicacious opinion-makers. It is sad but logical: the society is exhausted economically and confused politically, and in that setting, discerning between words and their bearers, between banners and those raising them is getting increasingly complicated. Who could possibly oppose dialogue and question the need for consensus?
After spending nearly four hours with Ortega, however, Bolaños finally forced him to give up the National Consensus initiative. But at what price?
It’s all about reelectionAll political sectors agree on the need to reform the Electoral Law, which was radically altered in 1999 as part of the pact between Daniel Ortega and Arnoldo Alemán to force through an exclusionary two-party scheme. Bolaños, the FSLN, Ortega and Alemán’s wing of the PLC have all manifested their desire to see it reformed. No bill has yet been presented in the National Assembly, but after two years of study the civil rights monitoring group Ethics and Transparency, which has played an important role as a civil society electoral observation body, is promoting a drastic and interesting proposal. Among other things, it would reduce the number of CSE magistrates from the seven mandated by the pact to three—two fewer than it originally had. It would also eliminate presidential reelection, replace the system of closed party slates with the election of legislators by name, eliminate the signature-collecting procedure for enrolling political parties, allow new parties to apply for legal status up to four months before an election, make it easier to form alliances, readmit the idea of popular subscription associations that allow independent candidates to stand for election, and prohibit foreign donations to electoral campaigns.
Without the oxygen expected from the National Dialogue—or Consensus—and perceiving that this need for a profound reform of the exclusionary Electoral Law was gathering force, Alemán went looking for another source of air. He issued a challenge that he knew would never go anywhere but would make him look good: he would instruct his PLC bench to promote a constitutional reform prohibiting presidential reelection, and would even include a retroactive clause preventing him and Ortega from slipping in under the wire. Ortega refused to even discuss the possibility, but his spokes-people later did—arguing that the reform contributed nothing, was unnecessary and unimportant...
But, in fact, it is the exact opposite of all those things and more: it is key. The backdrop to the current political crisis is all about the overt reelection ambitions of both Alemán and Ortega, which would allow the perpetuation of corruption, caudillismo and the misuse of power. Lulu’s victory in Brazil, which is so justifiably filling Latin America with hope, has already sparked a mechanical calculation in Ortega’s loyal circle: if Lula won there on his fourth try, it is a clear omen that Ortega will break his losing streak on the fourth attempt here. The comparison is ridiculous, since the differences between Lula’s Workers Party and Ortega’s FSLN are as great as those between a pachyderm and a weasel, though both are classified as mammals.
A controversial measureBolaños has been unable to get Alemán to throw in the towel for any reason. He has also been unable to sway PLC members over to an alternative vision of the party. And, unfortunately, he needs both things. His strategy requires not only clearing up the corruption cases masterminded by Alemán, but also shaping a more modern and democratic, less caudillista and Alemán-like PLC, a goal still far from reach.
Forcing things because he is running out of time, Bolaños closed down Radio La Poderosa, one of Alemán’s most important sources of oxygen. As soon as the state telecommunications company issued the order to close the station, customs officials impounded the equipment and opened a case for alleged contraband. Although Bolaños’ intention was evidently political, his measure had a legal basis: the owner of the station’s frequency is the Archdiocesan Social Promotion Commission (COPROSA), which belongs to the archbishopric of Managua, but is not legally registered and thus illegal. Until recently, Roberto Rivas was the director of the station, which benefited from official privileges for years, the most visible of which was the exoneration of millions of dollars in taxes.
According to the Ministry of Government, “COPROSA has operated outside of the law for 11 years. We have no information about its objectives or directors and it never acquired rights, duties or obligations because judicially it never existed.” President Bolaños suggested to the displeased cardinal that he appeal the governmental decision or use the “right channels” to request that the church frequency be reassigned.
The most significant part of the President’s measure was its implicit political message. By administratively closing the medium that had adhered Alemán’s followers around programs in which virulent propaganda prevailed over informative content, the President touched an institution that has been in the anti-corruption struggle’s sights from the outset. Despite suspected and charged irregularities, that institution had previously remained unscathed because it is an ecclesiastic fiefdom.
It is precisely their resentment at the loss of the legal privilege of being “above the law” enjoyed during the Alemán, Chamorro and even Sandinista administrations that inspires various top religious figures in their constant haranguing of and declared opposition to the Bolaños government.
Taking the bull by the hornsThe closure of La Poderosa overheated the political climate, but deprived Alemán supporters of their main blow-off valve. It also set almost all of society against the government, with the media closing ranks around what they saw as a freedom of expression issue, allowing Alemán to parade himself as a “victim” of Bolaños, whom he began to refer to as a nazi.
On Sunday, October 20, thousands of Alemán supporters came out to support their leader in Boaco. In his speech, Alemán reiterated that he would never leave the country, but would rather go to prison and emerge victorious from it. He encouraged the 90 Liberal mayors who attended to organize protests in their own municipalities to “say no to the dictatorship.”
Accustomed to over 20 years of polarization between Sandinismo and anti-Sandinismo, the population is being pushed by the current political scenario to take sides in a new polarization: Bolañismo-Alemánismo. For the moment, at least, the FSLN is the least scathed of all participants in this melee, with Vice President Rizo admitting that “for now, the FSLN is to a certain degree setting Nicaragua’s political agenda.”
But the FSLN is obviously not satisfied with that; it is looking to stretch out this confusing scenario it helped create with the pact, milking its best returns closer to the next election periods. Right now, however, as Alemán’s loyalists pull some wavering anti-Sandinistas back into the fold by charging that Bolaños made a pact with Ortega to destroy them, Sandinista, non-Sandinista and even some anti-Sandinista sectors are beginning to reach a shared understanding that this tangled political web has other boundaries than those immediately apparent.
“The hand of god”In this tense and fluctuating setting, an unexpected inflection appeared on October 22, when Alemán’s eldest son died in an avoidable accident on the El Chile hacienda where Alemán and his family live. The political context and the characteristics of the event itself immediately acquired the trappings of an authentic “Greek tragedy,” in which “destiny” takes over when human beings reach dead ends and it becomes necessary for “the gods to speak.”
The 24-year-old Arnoldo Jr., two workers and two police bodyguards of the family died during the cleaning of a large water storage receptacle. When the first worker was overcome by carbon monoxide fumes from the water-extracting pump located within the tank, Arnoldo José jumped in to save him. The two police officers and the other worker followed suit as one after the other was overcome by the venomous air trapped in the tank.
Broad segments of the population gave this freak occurrence a religious reading, as a “divine punishment”—or warning—from on high to a man determined not to admit his sins or return to the people his ill-gotten gains. Nonetheless, the scenes of the arrogant Alemán sobbing inconsolably for his “heroic” son were very powerful and quickly melted the hard edges of this political take.
A ritual Catholic society such as Nicaragua’s, which financially and emotionally invests so much in the ceremonies surrounding a death (the wake, mourning, funeral, triduum, ninth day memorial, etc.), is fertile terrain for a new political maneuver in the most unanticipated places and moments. With incredible aplomb, Alemán’s youngest daughter María Alejandra emotionally verbalized it from the pulpit at the funeral mass for her brother in Managua’s Cathedral before TV cameras, radio mikes, thousands of people, the Cardinal and other Church leaders.
Her interpretation was a religious reading of the accident as well, but the flip side of the already generalized one: “Over all these months I have been asking how it is possible that there could be so much hatred toward us when my father has only done good things. Day after day I asked the Lord, saying, ‘something is going to happen. I know, Lord, that you will not allow my father to go to prison.’ What I never imagined is that the Lord, with his designs, would decide to take my brother’s life to save that of my father.... I would like to ask all of Nicaragua to understand that my brother’s death carries a message: to end the hatred displayed by the whole political class against Arnoldo Alemán, who has only wanted to do good for his people; to find compassion for the Alemán family.... Yes, the Lord took my brother’s life; that was what He wanted to save us.”
In María Alejandra’s version, God had spoken not of punishment but of salvation. Her brother had died vicariously, with God taking his live to save his father and the rest of the family. Such an idea would not be rejected out of hand by a large part of the population, which often imagines God as a being hungry for submission, sacrifice, even blood, or alternatively as an arbitrary master who negotiates the life and destiny of humans—in other words, yet another caudillo. The girl had—innocently or cued?—slipped a political proposal into her pained words: stop the judgment of her father and accept this grandiose trade-off that God himself decided: the life of her brother for the freedom of her father. The clergy and Alemán sympathizers who had packed the Cathedral were quick to applaud the idea.
For all that, this “theological” aberration seems not to have struck a resonating chord with the majority of those called upon to decide whether Alemán will be stripped of his immunity. The precarious new majority in the National Assembly stood firm: family pain must not be mixed with institutional responsibility. But the idea had been floated, and though not accepted, it remained hanging in the air as one more thread in the warp of the political web.
On the brink of the abyssAn hour after the media began reporting the death of Alemán’s son, a well-known former commander of the Resistance (the “contra”) named Tirso Moreno burst into the editorial office of the rightwing newspaper La Prensa brandishing a pair of pistols. He threatened to kill over twenty journalists and other newspaper employees, blaming them for Arnoldo Jr.’s death and for the country’s problems. He held them at gunpoint for over three hours until the police calmed him down and disarmed him. Two days later he declared in court that he had decided to “take over” the building after downing five shots of whiskey because he had decided that the only way to force reflection and a national dialogue was by stirring things up. Moreno was accused of seven crimes, but only sentenced to prison for one. His action fed justifiable fears that it could be part of a broader plan and was roundly repudiated by virtually all public figures. Only the legislators loyal to Alemán tried to justify it by Moreno’s emotional state, with Cardinal Obando expressing like-minded comprehension.
Two days after the tragedy, Daniel Ortega met again with the cardinal, exploring the new terrain. “The tragedy suffered by the Alemán family unquestionably created a very sensitive, delicate emotional situation,” he said, testing the waters for a possible truce for Alemán, and with it new negotiation space in his own favor.
Ortega warned that same day that Nicaragua was on “the brink of an abyss,” a warning frequently used by politicians and government officials to describe the consequences of some potential turn of events they fear. Together with “institutional chaos,” it has been replacing the equally hackneyed “social explosion” of “unpredictable consequences.” With the warning now so commonplace, it is important to establish who is digging the abyss and defining where its edge really is, because all those being tapped by justice since the launching of the anti-corruption fight are trying to negotiate their impunity by threatening or generating chaos. Such erratic gyrations on the edge of this precipice could indeed plunge all of society to the bottom.
“Resolution” in courtIt was no surprise when the second Ortega-Obando meeting was followed by the “resolution” of another institutional problem, this time in the Supreme Court. This branch of government, where the pact left its prints by increasing the number of justices form 9 to 16, half Liberal and half Sandinista, had been unable to elect 5 new justices to replace those whose term was up a few months ago. As with everything else in this country’s political world right now, the election was kept open as another important negotiating chip in the immunity and impunity trade. While it thus could not be so easily ironed out, the quick election by the 11 remaining justices of a new president and vice president of the court and new presidents for all the designated benches could. The result of the October 25 election gave greater control of the court to the FSLN following an unclear exchange between Liberals and Sandinistas, and the very clear failure of the executive branch’s interests in all of the readjustments decided that day.
Justices Alba Luz Ramos and Armengol Cuadra, both Sandinistas, were respectively elected president and vice president. The presidencies of the constitutional and other designated benches as well as the directors of other institutional projects were divided between Liberal and Sandinista magistrates in a way that made the FSLN the net winner. At the beginning, Ramos’ nomination was supported only by women’s organizations—not all of them supportive of the FSLN—with the FSLN backing her only at the last minute. It is the first time in Nicaragua that a woman has presided over the judicial branch, which has 80% female judges overall, 75% of them sympathetic to the Sandinistas. Ramos distanced herself from Daniel Ortega’s late public support, calling hers “a victory for women and my own personal victory because when I launched my candidacy I didn’t even have the support of the party with which I have always sympathized.” She added succinctly that her win should not be interpreted as fruit of the Liberal-Sandinista pact, but quite the opposite: fruit of the fact that “a pact was broken.”
The mega-crisisAs bad as a situation gets, it can always get worse. And it has. One-act farces always aspire to be tragedies and on October 29, Nicaraguans suddenly found themselves teetering on the now well-trodden edge of that abyss again, witnesses to a new institutional crisis, the most novel and serious one that could be imagined. The new Public Ministry, fully controlled by the Alemán-Ortega pact through Public Prosecutor General Julio Centeno Gómez and Deputy Prosecutor María Lourdes Bolaños, formally charged President Enrique Bolaños, Vice President José Rizo and 32 government officials and PLC politicians and legislative representatives—Alemán among them—of electoral crimes. Days later, aware that their case against Bolaños and Rizo had so many holes it could be thrown out, they also accused them of fraud against the state.
These supposed defenders of the public interest wanted to demonstrate that some of the public funds President Alemán laundered through Panamanian banks were used to finance last year’s electoral campaign with Bolaños’ full knowledge. If this accusation is taken to its final judicial consequences through the testimony of Alemán’s accomplices in government, as appears to be the intention, Bolaños and Rizo are through. They could be impeached, politically disenfranchised and probably even imprisoned. This will leave a vacuum of power that will have to be institutionally filled by none other than the National Assembly representatives. With various Liberal representatives implicated in the same criminal accusation out of the game, the FSLN bench could suddenly find itself with a clear majority.
This and the elements surrounding it qualify as the genuine abyss. It has been labeled by many as the most serious and complicated of the many and varied institutional crises that Nicaragua has survived since the initiation of the “democratic” transition in 1990. Many are also alarmed by the fact that the FSLN, already involved in arbitrating Alemán’s fate “institutionally” through its control of the judicial apparatus and solid and increasingly powerful Assembly bench, now appears to control Bolaños’ fate as well.
Following the Public Ministry’s accusations, the country became a hotbed of speculations about the intentions and dimensions of what Bolaños called an “institutional feint.” On receiving the accusations, the Supreme Court magistrates declared that they were prepared to try the President if he laid aside his immunity, but admitted that there was no legal proceeding or precedent for stripping him of it. Prestigious, politically independent jurists pointed out the improprieties and inconsistencies in the Public Ministry’s original charge and the later fraud accusation. Some explicitly and others implicitly made it clear that the Supreme Court would be acting as an accomplice to a political plot against Bolaños if it permitted this suit to be tried. Meanwhile, President Bolaños picked a team of defense lawyers made up of Liberal León Núñez, former Supreme Electoral Council president Rosa Marina Zelaya and former Criminal Prosecutor Alberto Novoa, who initiated the fight against corruption representing the Attorney General’s Office in the Channel 6 case and was removed when his declarations first “touched” COPROSA.
Oh, the tangled With such a serious institutional crisis, the political web being woven became even more tangled. It was the foreseen “chaos” that the pro-Alemán PLC leaders had first warned about the day after Bolaños publicly took the lid off the famous “guaca”—Alemán’s estimated US$100 million stash of embezzled public funds. They threatened that if Bolaños persisted in destroying Alemán, they would in turn destroy him. Byron Jerez, already in prison due to half a dozen other fraudulent activities while head of the government tax division under Alemán and first to be questioned in the guaca trial, reiterated this strategy: Bolaños will die trying to finish off Alemán.
webs we weave...
Sandinista Judge Juana Méndez, who presided over the guaca trial, prepared the next step on that path. Handing down her sentence on September 9, she coupled it with accusations against an additional group of Alemán supporters for money laundering, and ordered the investigation of various other Liberals for possible electoral crimes, some of which she mysteriously removed from the list when she reformed her sentence. This institutional “mega-chaos” enjoys the “full support” of the FSLN, which stated in a communiqué that “the fight against corruption must continue in a profound manner, without exceptions or negotiations.” To leave no doubt about the smell of conspiracy, Prosecutor General Centeno Gómez visited Cardinal Obando on November 1 to explain why he filed his charge against Bolaños and the others and solicit the cardinal’s backing.
The same day that Centeno formally filed his accusation, President Bolaños appeared publicly, speaking with unaccustomed harshness. He referred to the accusation as “shameful, sad and dangerous,” and in a justifiable but risky political and ethical gamble, announced that he would give up his immunity to face the charges and demonstrate that the funds for his presidential campaign were managed transparently. Later he and Rizo backtracked by delaying the renunciation of their immunity, supposedly to gain a clearer idea of the political maneuvers that could be hiding behind the institutional masks.
Too fragile to bear the weight?Can the political and economic fragility surrounding President Bolaños stand the gaff? Two more examples of this storm-blown month. Just after taking office, Bolaños happily announced that Managua would host the VIII Central American Games in 2005. A year later, the government has had to recognize that bankrupt Nicaragua does not have the financial capacity to build the necessary sports installations or offer the required guarantees. Sick to death of politics, the population had seen these games as a relief, a hope, a distraction and a national pride. The most drastic part of the adjustment imposed on Nicaragua by the multilateral financial organizations and the degree of inherited disorder killed all this with a single blow.
President Bolaños described his administration’s economic fragility as follows: “What I found in the state treasury upon assuming office was nothing more or less than $300,000, and since then I have only been administering pittances. As they say, ‘We’ve spent 23 years partying and boozing, and now the hangover. That’s what I’m administering: the hangover.”
This was part of his speech during a November 2 visit to Bluefields to celebrate the 15th anniversary of the promulgation of the Autonomy Statute for the Atlantic Regions. Since then, despite the coming and going of four different governments, this constitutional-ranking law has still not been accompanied by the passage of regulatory legislation, limiting its concrete applications virtually to the formalism of the regional governments, themselves trapped in innumerable difficulties. The President thus struck a happier note when he announced a pledge not only to regulate the autonomy law but also to approve the bill for the demarcation of indigenous territories.
If the Bolaños government’s economic fragility is grave, so is its political fragility. The President has a parliamentary minority of between six and nine votes, while the two majority benches run with military efficiency. Their chiefs in turn take orders from the caudillo of their respective party and have become increasingly expert in plotting schemes to benefit these political bosses rather than the nation. This practice is fostering disillusionment, passivity and even violence. In the case of the Atlantic Coast, the long-delayed demarcation of indigenous territories and their daily invasion by waves of mestizo peasants who are in turn chips in an organized land racket, are generating potentially dangerous interethnic tensions that nobody is paying any attention to.
On the edge of the mega-abyssThe scenarios before are us are not encouraging. The prosecutor general’s accusation against Bolaños could be the centerpiece of an anti-Bolaños plot hatched from different corners that combines the interests of Alemán and Ortega and could truly lead to an institutional chaos that would suit Alemán’s negotiation aims perfectly. Such a plot could lead on to various scenarios: an incapacitated executive branch with a disabled President; a provisional government arising from a National Dialogue; early elections; a Constituent Assembly... While all these scenarios include Arnoldo Alemán, they really favor Daniel Ortega.
The most hopeful and probable scenario is that the “institutional chaos” germinating in the accusation against Bolaños will not reach beyond the densest and stickiest of the webs woven to trap the institutions and public opinion into accepting continued corruption and impunity. But even if President Bolaños emerges unscathed or even strengthened, and Alemán is finally stripped of his immunity and taken to court, the foreseeable scenario is still not very calming. We need to bear in mind that the level of instability and uncertainty that we have already seen a besieged Alemán generate will not stabilize if he is tried, convicted and imprisoned; in fact it will only grow. This process will be a long one, lasting months, even years and will bog the country down in the same energy-sapping conflict, while many more webs are woven. Can Nicaragua’s economic and political fragility withstand such a test?