A Country Lost in Its Labyrinth One Year into the “New Era”
Do we have the country we deserve? Or must we make ourselves deserving of the country we want and are obliged to build? The none-too-encouraging sum-up of 2002 forces us to
reflect on and actively work toward this goal.
The first year of what victorious presidential candidate Enrique Bolaños had promised would be a “New Era” is drawing to an end. With the firecrackers of Purísima and the blinking lights of Christmas as the backdrop, it is time to take stock. The bottom line is complex, full of revelations as well as uncertainties, disappointments and, above all, hard lessons. The entire year has been a lurching roller coaster ride of confusion and near chaos that still offers too little clarity to forecast the likely scenarios awaiting Nicaragua next year.
Pedaling hard, going nowhereHad anyone ever imagined just how seriously President Bolaños would take his anti-corruption campaign, it would have been relatively easy to forecast the real commotion it would cause in the country. What was unimaginable was just how much instability this crusade would subject us to.
The year is ending with national policy utterly dominated by a shortsighted focus on a war against corruption that is obsessively personalized in a single figure and has revealed unsalvageable limitations. Institutions are paralyzed and snarled up in formalistic, pharisaical “legal” interpretations of what they should do, while the economy is deeply in recession and dependent on an inexpert and uncoordinated economic Cabinet that has been unable to formulate a national development plan.
The country is bogged down in a morass of its own making. Every day has brought a new scandal or some other disagreeable surprise, most of which engendered only shame or indignation. The best metaphor to illustrate the final months of the year was offered by Nicaraguan philosopher Alejandro Serrano Caldera: “We are like someone pedaling on an exercise bicycle; the country is in political motion 24 hours a day, but isn’t moving forward an inch.”
While the Alemán-Ortega pact bears major responsibility for the crisis, more recently, the unwillingness of Alemán and his people to face the truth has been largely responsible for the institutional paralysis and the political and economic instability. Rather than being defeated by the anti-corruption crusade, this power group—increasingly revealed as a political-economic mafia—has buttressed its underlying target: a backward political culture based on a paternalistic, authoritarian caudillismo, or political bossism, that fosters corruption and on a kind of corruption that spawns caudillos. Alemán has unquestionably been hit over the year, but he still has a lot of power and his support network will be alive and kicking back for a long time to come.
The last national poll for this year, conducted by CID Gallup on November 18-26, shows 45% blaming Arnoldo Alemán for the country’s overall crisis, down from 65% in August. The responses to other questions suggest that this drop does not reflect a more favorable attitude toward Alemán, but rather mounting disillusionment with Bolaños’ performance in pulling the country out of its multifaceted crisis during his first year in office.
Defeat, victory or a draw?While Alemán and his circle have not been beaten after this arduous year-long crusade, neither can they proclaim victory. Nearly two dozen people who institutionalized Alemán’s chain of corruption throughout the state have fled the country and are still being hunted (although they are surely enjoying their ill-gotten gains). The United States has cancelled the entry visa of half a dozen of them because they are suspected or proven of laundering money belonging to the Nicaraguan state. This is a hard punishment to swallow for individuals who have made their friendship with US power the centerpiece of their political pedigree.
The anti-corruption crusade has also helped the Nicaraguan state recover its credibility and rebuild the confidence of the international community, so badly undermined during Alemán’s administration. Since January, better controls and greater responsibilities have combined with the fear of being caught with one’s hand in the cookie jar to institutionalize an unprecedented level of order in public administration. Preventing future tolerance of what were once applauded misdeeds is in itself an enormous advance. It is giving the government a different sense of purpose, based on the seventh commandment: thou shalt not steal. Seeking to keep people’s hopes up as the original momentum was lost, Alberto Novoa, the special prosecutor in the Channel 6 case, stated, “The objective was never prison; it was to institutionalize transparency.”
The CID Gallup poll revealed that 52% of those consulted believe the anti-corruption campaign’s greatest effort must be to prevent acts of corruption in the future, while 38% see the priority as investigating the corruption of past governments.
Is any case not being negotiated?Byron Jerez, the most effective and voracious of Alemán’s cohorts with the most knowledge about all their joint business deals, is so far the only person convicted in the corruption cases this year who is in prison (the others are fugitives or protected by parliamentary immunity). Given Alemán’s self-serving skill at getting what he wants, this alone can be considered a victory for the other side, though we should be prepared to see Jerez conditionally paroled at any moment “for health reasons” or some other concocted excuse. Any such backward step in the anti-corruption fight is quite conceivable considering how judges have adjusted sentences, released prisoners and thrown out cases in the past few weeks.
In addition to its political goal, the year-long drive to remove Alemán’s immunity has been aimed at providing exemplary punishment for the mastermind and role model of his government’s corruption, but this objective can only be realistically accomplished in relative terms. Nothing that could happen to Alemán in the courts, if in fact he gets that far, is likely to be exemplary. Everything will continue to be subject to negotiations, in the same style we have already seen, albeit of a higher caliber.
Every case in this crusade, from the very first one involving Channel 6 in fraud, appears to have been negotiated politically with judges, appeals court magistrates and even Supreme Court justices. Since both the President and the two big caudillos—Alemán and Ortega—have their loyalists in the judicial branch and other state institutions, any case can be resolved by cutting some deal. Could it be any other way when the surgery Nicaragua needs involves making very deep cuts and the ailing body is already used to living with its disease?
In the same CID Gallup poll, 59% of those interviewed expressed little (29%) or no (30%) faith in the judicial processes involving those accused of corruption.
A questionable routeThose National Assembly legislators bent on removing the parliamentary immunity of Alemán and four other legislators, including Alemán’s daughter, engaged innumerable ploys to that end during the 2002 legislative session, few of which could be called honorable. They engaged in slanging matches and even traded physical blows with pro-Alemán legislators, used all manner of contrivances to get a quorum or break one and cut backfiring deals in September to pull together the 1-vote majority that removed Alemán as president of the Assembly board. It was even discovered that most representatives packed a gun in parliament just in case. Since September, they have done a daily head count to keep their fragile majority in line to win the immunity vote, but it was touch and go. The most incredible story was that of Resistance Party leader Fernando Avellán, who had cut a juicy deal—including getting the vice-presidential seat on the new post-Alemán board—in exchange for voting against his buddy Alemán. As vote time on the immunity issue approached, Avellán suddenly feigned a heart ailment and left the country to avoid making good on his pledge, thus breaking the anti-Alemán majority. He was visited in hospital by a couple of Liberals who just “happened” to be in Miami on a shopping trip, presumably to ensure that he was not planning to recover his health any time soon.
The crisis provoked by the effort to strip Alemán’s immunity paralyzed normal National Assembly work, including passage of next year’s budget bill. A tragedy that must be noted in any year-end analysis is that all solutions to any institutional crisis necessarily fall to the Assembly. There, legislators loyal to one of the two caudillos—whose pact gave Alemán his assembly seat and thus parliamentary immunity in the first place—push through their respective political agendas with total disregard for the nation’s well-being. If the electoral law needs to be reformed, if new Supreme Court justices need to be elected and/or the number of justices reduced, if the Immunity Law must be abolished, if the mega-salaries of top government officials need to be slashed, etc., etc., it all goes to the Assembly. And there it stops or gets negotiated by the two caudillos, because the Assembly is their stomping ground, in the most literal sense of the phrase. It is a vicious and closed circle.
Alemán used all the Bolaños and his team spent long and tense months trying to smoke the scorpion out of his parliamentary refuge. But Alemán remained ensconced, demonstrating an enormous vocation for power and proving himself to be a super-caudillo. It was to be imagined that he would ably resist the assaults, but nobody imagined the iron determination with which he continued fighting when in a single month his eldest son Arnoldo Jr. died in a tragic accident and his sister Amelia, the family matriarch, succumbed to cancer. These two emotional blows put his political abilities to the test, and he emerged more than triumphant. If Alemán underestimated Bolaños when bowing to Conservative capital’s desire to finance Bolaños’ candidacy on the Liberal ticket, Bolaños surely underestimated Alemán when deciding to target him with the crusade.
weapons in his arsenal
Alemán and his supporters pulled out all the stops to prevent him losing his immunity: massive marches, declarations, threats, bravado, maneuvers, pressure tactics and other, less visible methods that abused laws, institutions and individuals. They also threatened to engage in supposedly civil protests aimed at stirring up a defiant mood that could easily degenerate into violence, particularly in rural areas. This pro-corruption crusade left a trail of demoralization that only intensified people’s exhaustion and distrust of everybody.
The wear and tear on Alemán’s image was extreme, especially when he was voted out of his post as National Assembly president. The CID Gallup poll shows him at the bottom of the public opinion ratings with 75% unfavorable and only 19% favorable. Even more than that (78%) feel he should be stripped of his immunity so he can stand trial. But strangely enough, only 52% favor sending him to prison if proven guilty, while 19% prefer slapping him with a stiff fine. Another 9% think he should go free and 5% would rather let him go into exile.
The Bolaños-Ortega allianceAlemán demonstrated that he was the caudillo not only of his wing of the Constitutionalist Liberal Party (PLC), but also of a larger Liberal sector that now irreversibly resents Bolaños. One reason for that resentment was the near impossibility of preventing the anti-corruption crusade from taking on a Bolaños vs. Alemán personalization. Another is that in order to confront Alemán, Bolaños had to turn repeatedly to FSLN general secretary Daniel Ortega, despite the fact that the Sandinista party is the most emblematic rival of the PLC and of anti-Sandinista Liberals in general. This excessive, even flaunted dependence on Ortega, who himself mocked the Immunity Law for years to avoid standing trial on sex crimes, deepened the disenchantment that politics and politicians are increasingly engendering in the population.
In the poll, the 37% of those interviewed who declared they were Liberal divided along the following lines: 57% consider themselves pro-Bolaños and 20% pro-Alemán, while the other 23% either did not respond or said they do not lean toward either one. In a separate question, 67% of all those polled consider the Bolaños-Ortega “alliance” simply an expedient measure to strip Alemán of his immunity, while 21% claimed it was a true friendship marked by mutual respect and the remaining 12% did not know or did not express an opinion.
Ortega’s arbitrationIt was well within the realm of political imagination that Ortega and his political-economic circles would seek to gain advantage from the infighting between the Bolaños and Alemán tendencies in the PLC, but no one imagined how much arbitrating leverage Ortega would end up having in the national crisis. His power, though harmful, is indisputable. Society has gotten used to coexisting with that power, for which the FSLN, which is making ethical demands on Bolaños while never making any on Ortega, bears major responsibility.
This situation has prematurely nourished the conviction among the FSLN hard core that the next presidential elections are already in the bag, with Ortega yet again as the candidate. No doubt the many Sandinistas within and outside of the party who are critical of Ortega would again vote for him, but Ortega’s scandalous moves over this period, cozying up first to Alemán, then more recently to Bolaños and even to Cardinal Obando, have politically demobilized conscientious Sandinistas. And this is very worrying, because their conscientiousness still represents a strategic reserve for promoting change in Nicaragua. Today more than ever, all of Sandinismo—not just the FSLN—seems to be held hostage by Daniel Ortega.
In the poll, only 25% said they sympathize with the FSLN, yet 46% gave Ortega’s handling of the crisis good or very good marks. In the question judging public personalities using a simple favorable vs. unfavorable rating, Ortega and Cardinal Obando y Bravo are the two figures whose marks are most evenly divided into both categories, the former with 40% favorable and 46% unfavorable and the latter with 38% favorable and 41% unfavorable. This contrasts with former President Violeta Chamorro, who ranked absolute highest on the favorable side with 76% and only 15% unfavorable, and Alemán, who, as mentioned, was at the other extreme of the spectrum.
Banking on total chaosIn the last stretch of the climactic year-end push to get the National Assembly to strip Alemán of his parliamentary immunity, predictions abounded on both sides. Alemán’s backers chortled that Avellán’s timely flight signaled the end of the game, while Bolaños somewhat overconfidently claimed that he had more than enough replacement votes in his pocket.
At that point the US government stepped in and dealt Alemán a strategic blow by canceling his entry visa under the Patriotic Law, which punishes money laundering. That move was accompanied by harsh warnings from the new US Ambassador to Liberal legislators not to defend anyone who has robbed the people and “uses the Assembly as a refuge.” By the first week of December, it began to feel as if the jig was up for Alemán.
The previous month, Alemán strategists had made a final effort to create such institutional chaos that it would force Bolaños to negotiate from a position of extreme weakness, if not actually resign. Public Prosecutor General Julio Centeno, an unconditional Alemán loyalist, formally charged President Bolaños, Vice President Rizo and nearly three dozen other victorious Liberal candidates with having used ill-gotten state funds for their campaign. With that, the executive branch of government, the only one not already mired in crisis or paralysis, took a major hit.
No one can claim that any of Nicaragua’s elections since 1990 have been free of electoral crimes, especially when it comes to the origin and reporting of funds used in the parties’ campaigns, yet no such charge has ever been filed before. This strongly suggests that Centeno’s legal maneuver was politically motivated, despite his claim that he is acting out of a desire to “institutionalize” the country.
Another indicator is that, a full six weeks later, none of the other branches—judicial, legislative or electoral—have made any move whatever to deal with the accusation. This indifference toward a crisis that could theoretically mean impeachment strengthens suspicions that it was indeed only a ploy to force negotiations. But negotiations about what? Among other things, to ensure that the anti-corruption crusade open no more of the pending corruption cases involving Liberal and Sandinista leaders and delve no deeper into the ones already on the docket.
In an ethical gesture in keeping with his personality, Enrique Bolaños announced that he would give up his immunity to face the accusation, even though he called its political intent “perverse.” He has yet to make good on his pledge, however. Genuine chaos—economic, financial, salary, budgetary, hunger—overshadowed the institutional chaos fabricated by this charge, the counter-suit to annul filed by the Attorney General’s office, another suit to bolster the first one filed by Centeno, the calculatedly ambiguous declarations by legislators and Supreme Court magistrates, and the debate about presidential immunity.
The accusation achieved its aim and another one as well: it planted doubts about the crusade’s heroes and intensified the skepticism and feelings of powerlessness among the population. Such emotions are a straight line toward resigned individualism, which allows the dirtiest players in the game even more leeway.
In the CID Gallup poll, 85% said that the way the two presidential candidates in 2001—Bolaños and Ortega—managed their campaign funds should be investigated “to the ultimate consequences.” Of the 10% who disagreed, the majority lives in the capital and has at least some university education.
Mistrust is growingThe President’s political image has been tarnished by his ethical gesture, combined with the public’s perception that he is so bent on his campaign that he is not focusing enough attention on the worsening economic crisis. Public opinion, dominated by a political culture based on defiant machismo, views his foot-dragging on renouncing his immunity as a failure to keep his word exceeded only by his failure to generate jobs and raise people’s economic well-being, so insistently pledged during his campaign. “This President doesn’t deliver” is a phrase increasingly on people’s lips and seen scrawled on walls. The mistrust beginning to surround President Bolaños augurs no good, and has already begun to undermine his anti-corruption campaign.
In the poll, 74% responded affirmatively to a yes-no question about whether Bolaños had shown himself capable of leading the country. Of those answering yes, only 47% qualified that he was very capable, which is down 20 points from August but still better than either Alemán or Chamorro pulled after a similar time in office. The majority reportedly believes that he is hindered mainly by the lack of support shown by the National Assembly and even more importantly by his own party, the PLC. The economic disappointments also figure strongly, with 86% saying they have perceived no improvement in the New Era. On a personal scale, however, Bolaños still gets very high ratings, at 75% only one point behind the eternally beloved Violeta Chamorro.
The “Lone Ranger”The public prosecutor’s maneuver also triggered new conflicts for President Bolaños within the government and within the Liberal Party wing that he founded once in office and has so far failed to consolidate effectively. They all sparked at once, like a string of firecrackers. First, Vice President Rizo failed to follow the President’s ethical stance, making clear that he would not renounce his own immunity. Second, he backed off Bolaños’ political strategy, which is having a serious effect on the Liberal Party. Liberal leaders who had sided with Bolaños began to speak publicly of the major contradictions caused by the attitude of many of the top government officials he appointed. As a result, Bolaños was quickly saddled with the image of a “Lone Ranger” condemned to failure if the Bush administration decides to stop backing him.
Bolaños is not, does not want to be and would not even know how to be a caudillo. In a political environment with ever fewer principles and ever more self-serving ambitions, however, it is not easy to see either the end of Alemán’s influence or the end of caudillos after everything that has happened this year. No reform to the electoral law is within sight, despite the general clamor to free the country from the two-party system forcibly imposed by Alemán and Ortega. And even if it is reformed, it is unclear that it would achieve the needed changes. The FSLN is not democratizing itself; in fact, it is going even further in the other direction. And even Bolaños himself does not seem to be democratizing and modernizing the PLC, which was the main political objective of his government.
Nicaragua is a good testWhile Bolaños has been hurt by both the charge against him and the issue of resigning his immunity, they are not what has most undermined his anti-corruption campaign. The ills of our political culture have shown themselves over this year to be too deeply rooted. Not only because the three indisputable national caudillos—Alemán, Ortega and Cardinal Obando—still have so much power to sway people, but also because the blind spots in Bolaños’ own attitude cripple his ability to convince the population of the need to take up the banner of transparency.
Bolaños launched his anti-corruption crusade out of personal conviction, business sense and support and pressure from the international community. It is hard to measure what weighed more in his decision to go ahead in the face of so many obstacles. The events of this first year show that the crusade would not have got very far without the international community, especially the United States, which has recently taken up a similar anti-corruption crusade all over Latin America in the interest of its own national security. For foreign policy purposes, the Nicaraguan case, with a Bolaños who is so upstanding and discreet and an Alemán who is so opulent and squandering, provides the US government with a manageable test run and near perfect white hat vs. black hat images.
The first important episode in the anti-corruption crusade came in January, with the bloom still fresh on the New Era, when the US decided to deny Byron Jerez an entry visa. The final push to get this National Assembly session to strip Alemán of his immunity in December—before the new Assembly board faces elections in early January—was signaled by the US application of the same sanction to him. The US government’s active, determined and constant participation is a regrettable entry in our balance sheet, revealing Bolaños’ own political weakness, the incapacity of our national institutions and the “North-looking” mentality that characterizes our entire political class. For different reasons, it also characterizes the poor majorities, who look fixedly to that same North, the source of increasing family remittances sent by those who have emigrated, and where so many more would like to follow in search of opportunities their own country neither can nor cares to offer them.
Mega-salaries hurt Bolaños tooEnrique Bolaños also shares responsibility for the crisis besetting his campaign. At the end of this first year, we have been discovering that it suffers from its own fair share of arrogance and social insensitivity. What has most eroded its credibility, fostered demoralization and cynicism is the insensitivity expressed by how well financed the President’s corruption crusade is and the juicy salaries he and his New Era ministers earn leading it, not to mention the large amounts lavished on foreign advisers and consultants helping with his moralizing deeds.
Nicaragua is economically on the ropes, as the President himself recognized by stating that the 2003 budget—the first he has prepared himself—was imposed not by the International Monetary Fund but by having reached the “bottom of the barrel.” Nonetheless, Bolaños enjoys a $13,000 monthly salary as President plus a $5,000 pension for having served as Vice President, despite the fact that he is not retired and in fact resigned a year early to run for this even higher step on the salary ladder. In a bankrupt, indebted country only viable thanks to family remittances and international loans and handouts, in which a third of the population is malnourished, unemployed and illiterate, this is a scandalous salary even for a President, particularly if he is embarked on a moral crusade. The few allusions that the President and his ministers have offered to respond to the unanimous justified criticism are shameful and only boomerang against the population’s willingness to understand and support the anti-corruption campaign.
Despite the President’s quip, approval of his budget, a full 46% of which is earmarked for payment on the foreign and domestic debt, is indeed an IMF condition for the country’s much-awaited entry into the initiative for highly indebted and poor countries (HIPC). While that initiative could pardon 80% of Nicaragua’s foreign debt in the next few years, pardon of the huge domestic debt is not in the cards.
The National Assembly debate around the budget, which still suffers from a notable fiscal deficit, was riddled with the many tensions accompanying the fight over Alemán’s immunity. The economic panorama for 2003 is thus not very encouraging, especially as the whiplash following Alemán’s possible loss of immunity could fill next year with even more instability and new uncertainties.
No questions about the mega-salaries of government officials were included in the CID-Gallup poll, paid for by the presidential budget. Much can be read about the population’s economic angst and increasing disenchantment with Bolaños’ uni-focus on his anti-corruption crusade, however, from the shift in responses to a question asking people to identify the country’s main problems today. The one that earned first place in both August and November—lack of jobs—rose from 44% to 56% in that interval while the second-place choice—government corruption—plunged from 39% to 15%.
Telling the cynical truthIt is argued that all of these top government officials would earn still more if they were working for private enterprise. It is hard to prove, but even harder to believe when so many of them display their ineptitude on a daily basis. The President argues that the previous government’s top officials earned even more through the rampant corruption, secret budget lines and bonuses under the table, and that everything is now aboveboard. But in this case transparency does nothing to eliminate the problem. It is cynical, even obscene to brag about bringing such scandalous salaries into public light given the scale of the country’s current crisis. Even more cynically, the presidential spokesperson juggled the numbers to argue that Bolaños’ huge salary is actually cheap because it only costs each Nicaraguan under 0.03 córdobas a month. That remark is not only insensitive to the majority of the population that earns between $25 and $50 a month, if they are lucky enough to have a job, but inaccurate to boot.
A crusade like Bolaños’, which will have to go on for generations if it is to have any lasting effect, will accomplish little without bold personal examples. Given his personal history as a successful businessman and large landowner, it was imaginable that Bolaños would jealously guard his accumulated capital. It could not have been imagined, however, that he would so obstinately resist renouncing part of the capital he continues to accumulate, if only for his own political motives to help him go down in history as Nicaragua’s best president, a desire he expressed when kicking off his New Era.
So many lessonsThe lessons thrown up by such a complex and confusing reality this year are hard, and one can only wonder how many of them were truly learned, internalized, embraced. Which is the most important, the clearest, the one that promises a better future?
Is it the one illustrating the limits we have seen in this effort to eradicate corruption and fight for transparency in a country like Nicaragua, so anchored to a premodernity in which straw-bosses, caudillos and clerics rule and there is still no civic culture? Is it that the political scene is so dominated by male leaders educated and trained to act like fighting cocks? Or that the agenda of these politicians is so dominated by myopic goals that only benefit their personal political and economic agenda? Or how easily the “alternative” leaders allow themselves to be co-opted by traditional politics? Or how far off any sense of nation still appears to be?
Perhaps one of the most concrete lessons is to have painfully verified how corruption has ended up permeating all sectors over so many years of such radically different “national” projects, whether led by Somoza, the FSLN, Chamorro or Alemán. It has permeated the public and private sectors, the social and religious sectors, governors and governed, as well as the media opinion-makers and their respective audiences; in short, all sectors from top to bottom. It has permeated so deeply that anyone who upholds honesty and ethical behavior is looked on as a fool, or worse yet an easy target.
We have demonstrated that we would all like to see the corruption and privileges of others eliminated. But nobody seems willing to renounce the small or great advantages we have personally gained from a culture of corruption we have all actively or passively helped build, albeit some infinitely more than others.
We have to change courseIt is in those less contaminated “others” who aspire to another country, another society, another life that we must place our hope of finding a way out of the labyrinth.
But we will never find one if we do not bring other forms of damaging impunity out into the light. Although the CID Gallup poll found that economic issues, particularly jobs, took priority over corruption, there are other perceptions of the national reality. A particularly interesting one was revealed by a pioneer household survey of 900 women in Managua, Estelí and Bluefields conducted by Fundación Sobrevivientes (Survivors’ Foundation) between October and November to investigate the prevalence of sexual abuse and incest in our society and homes.
The women polled in both Managua and Estelí mentioned sexual violence as the country’s main problem, above unemployment and way above corruption. In Managua, 49% listed sexual violence and 37% unemployment, while in Estelí an astounding 65% listed sexual violence and only 21% unemployment. In Bluefields, 47% of the women listed unemployment first, but sexual violence was a close second at 39%.
How can there be justice in Nicaragua when relations within the household are so unjust, unequal and violent for women and children, when home is even more insecure for them than the unsafe streets? Can there be any real change in leadership when, according to this same poll, young and adolescent girls in one out of every three houses are abused by the males who represent the family’s leadership? And when Daniel Ortega remains as a daily reminder of male impunity in such crimes?
Can there be development with this epidemic destroying the underpinnings of society day after day and night after night? To find our way out of the labyrinth and change our course, we need to keep this reality, these crimes, in mind as well, because they are surrounded by an impunity even thicker than the one accompanying corruption.
Opinions on the Current Situation
The PLC is to Alemán what the National Guard was to Somoza“Being stripped of his immunity won’t stop Alemán from threatening the Liberal legislators who are loyal to him. You can remove his immunity, but his apparatus remains intact. His followers include those who are grateful, those who are committed and those who are threatened. Each one is very well identified. Some will tell you, ‘I’m afraid,’ while others will say, ‘Arnoldo paid for my operation.’ The committed don’t say anything, but they have business connections with Alemán. Stripping Alemán of his immunity doesn’t mean an end to their gratitude, their commitment or their fear. Alemán will never leave the Liberal Party. He’ll stand trial, be convicted and go to prison, or else he’ll leave the country, but the Liberal Party is to Alemán what the National Guard was to Somoza. It’s his guarantee, his political security.”
Eduardo Urcuyo, National Executive Committee planning secretary of the pro-Bolaños wing of the Constitutionalist Liberal Party (PLC)
Nicaragua is premodern“I’ve used the syndrome of Penelope waiting for Ulysses, in which she unravels at night what she wove during the day, as a metaphor to explain what is happening to us. Nicaraguan politics does the same thing: it builds to destroy, weaves to unravel. The most tragic part is that the country has already made its peace with this system. It is a circular determinism that has us bogged down, trapped, and hinders the country from developing with all of its natural and intellectual potential.
The political elite uses the institutions as instruments for power rather than channels of power. This is a politically schizoid society, in which a formal world of laws and a Constitution says one thing and a political, economic and social world does another. We come to the regional integration projects disintegrated, a disassociated society that has lost any common objective. Each fragment looks out for its own interests, and there is no nation-building project. While other states have strategic projects, Nicaragua’s society just keeps going around and around in a tragic circle. The attitudes assumed by the Catholic Church in this crisis are a sign of how totally premodern our society is. Nicaraguan politics are pre-modern, the Nicaraguan state is pre-modern and Nicaraguan culture is premodern.”
Alejandro Serrano Caldera, philosopher and former head of Nicaragua’s Autonomous National University during the Sandinista government
Nicaragua is a boat adrift“There are various components to the impasse into which we have fallen. The first is the backwardness of our political culture, which is unable to create institutions that resolve crises due to the shortage of citizens with a sense of nation. And the second is that the strength of caudillismo still controls or blocks the functioning of the state mechanisms that punish influential people’s crimes. This means that Nicaragua is a boat adrift and consequently unattractive for investment and the generation of jobs. What is at the core of the current frustration? The fact that we are in the middle of a process aimed at changing the values of our political culture without the guts or the instruments for doing it. We do have a determined orchestra leader, with an appropriate score, but some of his musicians either aren’t following him or are playing out of tune. There are also those who openly reject change. There are cunning people in the different political, social, economic and religious estates who want to continue enjoying the patronage of the corrupt officials who still survive within and outside the government.”
Politician and analyst Emilio Álvarez Montalván
A fracturing between representatives and represented“The lack of democracy inside the political parties, in which personal loyalties prevail, leads to the formation of parliaments with legislators who do not represent the social sectors and to a deep fracturing between the representatives and those they are representing. During their campaign, some representatives promised to consult the citizenry, unions and business associations.... After being elected, however, their only function has been to obey the political directives of their party’s upper echelons. Some even hide when one tries to interview them about issues outside of their hack politicking. Then there’s the issue of what they cost us: their monthly salary is US$5,000; they don’t pay taxes and they have the right to medical insurance, the introduction of two vehicles tax-free during their term and 200 gallons of fuel per month. The representatives have enough economic conditions to be efficient, but they aren’t.”
Historian and lawyer Karlos Navarro, author of the study, “¿A quiénes representan y para quiénes legislan los diputados? Crisis de representatividad en la Asamblea Nacional,” sponsored by the Friedrich Hebert Foundation and CIELACR
Two-way reciprocity presented as illicit activity?“Given the now constant and reiterated publications against Archbishop Cardinal Miguel Obando Bravo, the ecclesiastical authorities, priests and Church institutions, which are alarmist, misinformed, mal-intended and lacking in ethics...we denounce...the recurrent desire to convince the public that donations made to the Church constitute crimes or acts of corruption.... Traditionally the Archdiocesan Church of Managua has always requested help from private and public institutions and has served as a channel for this aid to reach people without distinctions of any kind. The Archdiocese has also handed out aid such as medicines, collaborating with previous governments through works of social beneficence. This has been a two-way reciprocity that is now being presented as illicit activity.”
Response by the Ecclesiastic Government of the Archdiocese of Managua to reports of privileges the Church received during the Alemán government, the latest being evidence that the Central Bank gave over 20 million córdobas to the Catholic University for scholarships in an extremely unequal division of official budget lines for university grants. This led Liberal jurist Sergio García Quintero to denounce Cardinal Obando to the Comptroller General’s Office on November 12.
No equilibrium between objectives and opportunities“The President has not achieved an equilibrium between his objectives and opportunities, basically because he has wanted to expedite the objectives at the cost of his own party, attaching himself to the support of the FSLN, temporally requested and temporally granted. The result has been that the government’s fight against corruption has imposed itself, literally, over governance. The country has been paralyzed. It has thus become necessary to seek an opportunity through a Political State Agreement, negotiated by the parliamentary parties under President Enrique Bolaños’ leadership to lay the groundwork for the country’s organic institutionality and rescue the lost governance, because all will be resolved in the National Assembly, independent of the course the solution takes. Such an agreement is presented as the most viable option to fill the vacuum of national objectives provoked by the obsessive anti-corruption objective. The alternative to this agreement is the solution oriented by the international community with always exclusionary US leadership.”
Sandinista analyst and historian Aldo Díaz Lacayo.
The President and ministers should set the example“The average monthly salary of a Nicaraguan minister is 135,000 córdobas [equivalent to over US$9,000], while teachers earn 904 córdobas [$61], according to the Executive Branch’s proposed budget. This means that an educator gets 0.67% of what the minister receives, and the minister earns in one month the value of 149 teachers’ salaries or what a teacher would earn after working 12 years continuously. It would be illogical to propose that they earn the same, but it is unjust for a functionary to be paid so much in a country that produces so little and for a teacher to earn so little for the responsibility of forming new citizens. This salary gap shows how the country is administered, although it needs both to save money and to provide more people with technical knowledge to produce more exportable goods. In addition to paying public school teachers so little, there is a shortage of 28,000 teachers and according to official records 900,000 children did not receive school education last year. If Nicaragua needs the sacrifice of its citizens to pull the country out of its economic ruin, the President and his ministers should set the example by cutting their salaries and saving the state that expense so it can invest more in schools and pay teachers better, before they cross the border into Costa Rica to pick coffee or cut cane.
Journalist Douglas Carcache
In a post-Alemán phase...“In a post-Alemán phase, the PLC, by then without the baggage of caudillismo, would have the opportunity to remake itself, and even unify around its most prestigious figures who have not adopted the absurd self-destructive position of persisting in risking the same fate as their disreputable caudillo, who has done them so much harm with his desire to use them as a protective screen for his impunity. Perhaps the FSLN, by then without Alemán’s presence, will decide to abandon its dual positions, which have only discredited it, and in good faith join a national effort to recover democratic institutionality, eradicate corruption and seriously combat poverty and unemployment, without demagogic populism. This would be more feasible the less the reelection interests of its own caudillo weigh on its decisions, since these so far seem to be the only interests the FSLN is considering in defining its political strategies. One of the priorities facing us as we emerge from the institutional crisis in which we find ourselves would be the urgent need to approve a new electoral law.”
Academic Carlos Tünnermann
A Note to Readers on the Way to the Printer…
Alemán stripped of hisAt 3:30 p.m. on December 12, with its Christmas vacation looming, the National Assembly voted to strip former President Arnoldo Alemán of his immunity so that he can stand trial on charges of embezzling copious state funds and laundering them through US and regional banks. The vote was 47 in favor, 0 opposed and 0 abstentions. In other words, the previously majority PLC bench, outnumbered by 1, neither voted nor abstained.
immunity at the 11th hour!
The hard-won victory came after a two-hour reading of the special com-mission’s findings and over four hours more of haranguing, demagogic speeches by Alemán and his supporters, virtually none of which addressed either the findings or the original charges. They focused largely on cajoling, threatening or politically blackmailing the opposition and labeling those who had earlier abandoned the PLC bench as traitors. As the voting quickly demonstrated, the speeches had no effect, mainly because both sides were otherwise occupied and no one was listening. The PLC, reduced over the year to 1 vote short of the 47 majority needed due to the departure of pro-Bolaños legislators, had to find and re-swing the vote rumored to have sided with the opposition. And the opposition bloc—including the mixed-party pro-Bolaños bench’s 8 votes and the FSLN’s 38—had to hang on to it because it had lost the original extra vote that had made possible Alemán’s removal as parliamentary president. In the end, the swing vote—the alternate to a pro-Alemán legislator from the Christian Way party who was suspended from attending Parliament for not having turned up for 21 working days—stuck with the opposition and cast the winning anti-immunity vote.
That vote could become the object of a court challenge, however, as the PLC immediately charged that he had not been properly registered to vote in place of the full representative. PLC members also argued that Alemán still held immunity as the result of holding a seat on the Central American Parliament as an ex-head of state, despite the fact that this assembly body is subordinated to the region’s national congresses.