Premature Election Campaigning Overshadows All
Perhaps the premature nature of the campaign has charged the pre-electoral climate with shortsightedness and personal ambition. Ultimately, the climate is being filled with shadows.
The joy of the August patron saint festivals mixed with the stupor due to the spectacular appearance of drug trafficking in the country, growing concern about the persistent attacks against Catholic churches and the pain of the air tragedy in El Salvador. Public opinion and the media followed these issues closely, shoving other, more important ones onto the inside pages: the economic challenges, the crisis following the arrangement that put an end to the institutional fight over the constitutional reforms, the property issue, and the incipient strain between the army and the police force over the definition of their roles. Meanwhile, the stridency of the premature electoral campaign is distorting all social and political activity in the country.
Although the campaign does not officially open until February 1996, the atmosphere is already saturated with electoral salvos from the main contending forces. The smaller parties are scrambling to hitch their wagon to the front runner, though not all alliances are yet concrete. It is perhaps the prematurity of this campaign that has riddled it with triviality, myopia, personal ambition and mutual deafness between rivals. All this stands in the way of a good climate to negotiate vital issues such as property or a basic vision of the country's development, or to permit the elections and even the candidacies themselves to be channeled in a constructive direction.
If things go on this way, the country will lose almost two years to an electoral campaign. In most consolidated democracies, campaigns last six months at the outside and proselytism is prohibited beforehand; in Nicaragua, candidates are already proselytizing. Their anxiety to win could send the country down an economically inflationary and ever more politically polarized populist incline.
Most Voters Are YoungOne very positive element that should be strengthened is that, in spite of everything, the Nicaraguan population is gambling on change through this democratic mechanism; it generally rejects the use of violent means. According to some polls, such as one M&R Consultants did in May for the Center for Communications Research, 85% of the population opposes the use of violence. This rejection, however, coexists with strong skepticism about the judicial system's effectiveness.
Almost 60% of those polled said they would vote in the upcoming elections, 18% are still undecided, 21% said they do not plan to vote and 1% did not respond. Some 54% of the possible voters more than in 1990 think their vote will be decisive in changing things, while 26% think their vote will have no effect. Another 11% were unsure, and 9% had no view or did not respond.
Half of those who think their vote can change things are between 16 and 19 years old, and a majority of them have finished high school. This indicates that the youth, especially those who are voting for the first time in 1996, want things to improve with a new government. In general, those polled do not accept a continuation of the current political and economic model.
According to Nicaraguan Institute of Statistics and Census data, women are potentially 53% of the electorate; 25% of the potential voters will be voting for the first time and 48% of them are between 16 and 19. The concrete problems of youth in general (real opportunities for education and jobs) and young women in particular (defense of their children's lives, education for them and their children, maternal mortality and family planning) will be crucial issues at the moment of deciding to vote. These voters will not be satisfied to elect just any opposition candidate; it will have to be a statesman who rises above the professional politicians' hyperactivity and gives greater weight to participation by the citizenry.
Achieving an electoral process that meets the aspirations of the population means dealing with numerous obstacles in an extremely limited time period. The agenda of key points is packed.
Property: Consensus Is ElusiveThe first and most critical point on that agenda is the property problem. After a forum on the issue with Jimmy Carter at Nicaragua's Montelimar beach resort in July, the executive sent the National Assembly two bills, believing that what was discussed at that forum laid the basis for a minimum consensus. It considers that consensus to be backed by "civil society," which it identifies as the big farmers and ranchers in COSEP's Nicaraguan Union of Agricultural Producers, whose board members endorse official policy.
The Association of Confiscated Property Owners, on the other hand, says there is no consensus since its members reject the Montelimar accords. This attitude casts a long shadow over the property debate, particularly since the US Republicans, with Senator Helms at their head, will pressure Clinton's Democrats on this point in the US electoral campaign, which also begins in March.
As with all key issues pending on the national agenda, the property issue will have to be resolved by consensus. This implies that the hard line confiscated group will have to back off of its aspiration to recover all confiscated properties and limit itself to those that were unjustly affected, for which a real and secure indemnification or their outright return can be negotiated. Sandinista leaders must also renounce the sizable properties they obtained through unjust appropriations or bank liquidations at ridiculously low prices, either returning them or paying for them through government mediation within an open legal framework. Without collaboration by both sides, the property problem cannot be solved in the foreseeable future, and will be bequeathed to the next government.
In the National Assembly, the fragmentation of the alliance that formed around the constitutional reforms and the growing fragmentation of several benches 9 of the 31 Sandinista legislators who sided with Sergio Ramírez's Sandinista Renovation Movement (MRS) late last year formed yet another bench at the end of August will not help gain consensus on the property issue. Neither those who were confiscated nor the Sandinistas still in the FSLN have a parliamentary majority, and the frustrated alliance between Sandinista "Renovators," Social Christians and Social Democrats puts the possibility of a rapid agreement about this thorny issue even further out of reach.
The rapid chilling of the reconciliation between the legislative and executive branches through the so called Framework Law is another major obstacle. If this dynamic of forced encounters and deep fallings out goes on, the property problem will move to the center of the electoral contest, with all its explosive charge. In fact, both Arnoldo Alemán's Liberals and the FSLN's Sandinistas have already presented this issue as the key element of their platform. But using it for electoral aims is like playing with the insecurity of tens of thousands of small rural and urban property owners who benefited from the revolution's redistributive policies. The September 15 expiration date on the eviction moratorium has already triggered legal and political actions causing anguish to many of those families.
The Shadow of NarcotrafficOne new element could add even greater instability to the electoral campaign: drug traffic has now made an open, undeniable and even spectacular debut in Nicaragua. At the end of July, a small plane owned by the domestic airline La Costeña was hijacked to Colombia by a group of passengers posing as ecologists; a few days later its pilot was found murdered near Bogotá. Former Sandinista army officer Jorge Guerrero was arrested in Managua as the sole suspect. The deed, which has all the signs of being part of an important international drug operation, captured national attention since it revealed the growing involvement of Nicaraguans of various strata and from various parts of the country in the drug business; up to now, drug traffic appeared in the media as a phenomenon of the Atlantic Coast. When the suspect was subsequently released and the Costeña case quickly fell out of the news, people were left feeling that the authorities have no control over drug traffic in Nicaragua, even though they may have simply elected not to give out further information on the investigation.
Today's Nicaragua is an excellent breeding ground for drug traffic: thousands of former combatants on both sides are jobless and demoralized, the youth lack any options and the levels of extreme poverty are high. There are also other factors. Government policy has been to progressively weaken the armed forces, limiting their ability to deal with the highly coordinated and well equipped international drug rings. Furthermore, confronting and conquering drug traffic implies an honest and strong civil power that demands honesty from military power and controls its occasional overstepping of bounds.
Narcopolitics in Nicaragua? Drug traffic is up against a weak government in Nicaragua. The armed forces' budget is meager and corruption riddles the entire government structure. The public does not trust officials, whom it identifies not as public servants but as pillagers of the public. The judicial system is not only weak but corrupt and bureaucratized; the slow handling of some cases is notorious. Several months ago, after the police captured a boat in Atlantic Coast waters in which the whole crew seemed openly involved in transporting drugs, a coast judge ordered all suspects freed. Many costeños are still wondering what happened to the 1,400 kilos of cocaine confiscated. In the recent case of the accused Jorge Guerrero, he was released "for lack of evidence," even though there was obviously more than enough to hold him. The judge's inexplicable decision triggered an angry public reaction from the National Police chief and increased the population's skepticism of the judicial system.
Another new element that will make things easier for the drug traffic boom is the financial liberalization policy, which allows capital "easy" entry. Today the desired "foreign investments" may be acting as a camouflauge for "money laundering." The most dangerous thing of all is that international drug money may now be "electing" a government for 1996 that will serve its interests and turn a blind eye to its operations. If this phenomenon conditions elections and governments in countries like Colombia and Mexico, what can we expect from such a small country sunk into such poverty?
No voice of alarm is alarmist, it's justified. Drug traffic acts as a high powered social solvent, twisting social arrangements into violent shapes. When a country plugs into the narco-politics circuit, internal corruption, bad government, external pressures from the DEA and the interests of mafia hoods make it succumb on all fronts. Drug trafficking poses a social dilemma: the survival of the nation state and of society itself.
Like any other deadly epidemic, combating this one requires a lucid vision, shared national goals, the social sensitivity to respond to the urgent needs of the poor and energetic application of the law, on whomever it may fall. Above all, it requires a cultural revolution that recovers for the young the values of solidarity and gives them opportunities to develop healthy minds and bodies. A lack of responses and of support, pure repression or censorship, incomprehension and mistreatment are sure ways to make the young take refuge in drugs, fleeing the society that adults have made unviable for them.
Army vs. PoliceThe army and police have found an enemy to fight in drug traffic. No one doubts that both armed forces should be adequately prepared to halt the development of drug addiction and traffic in the country. The problem is which one will assume the principal role in this war.
Ever since General Humberto Ortega's retirement, the army has adopted an increasingly low profile. During the institutional crisis earlier this year, its active neutrality was widely noted. The desire to strengthen the apolitical and defensive role of what is now called the Army of Nicaragua, not the Sandinista Popular Army, is clear. With a limited budget, the army has lost much of its mobilizing capacity and its naval forces lack the means to even minimally patrol our seas and coasts.
For its part, the National Police is becoming autonomous from the army. In the war years of the 1980s, the police played the role of a second defense tier; its mission was to maintain order among the population with activities oriented toward crime prevention. Since the military emphasis was territorial defense, the police were subordinated to the army. With the political turnaround of 1990, the changes in the police showed the consequences of being a negotiating card in the upper echelon deals. Under its new chief, the National Police is more clearly being placed under civilian control. The increase in urban crime which goes hand in hand with extreme poverty has given it the chance to project itself by undertaking the role of guaranteeing citizens' security. Its profile has thus been on the rise while that of the army has been dropping, even though it does not have the resources to carry out that role effectively.
Given the problem posed by drug traffic, both institutions insist on the need for a bigger budget to allow them to confront it. Even before the growth of that problem, the National Police reiterated again and again that it can only provide security for the population with more resources and greater means. Given the huge demand for security in these five years, several police and army chiefs have created private personal security companies, hiring their discharged officers to safeguard houses, businesses, banks, schools, farms, etc. But crime has shot up so much that the risky work of the street policemen is not enough to even minimally protect the poor, whose only shield is this public service.
Who Will Get the Budget? On September 2, during the army's 16th anniversary celebration, General Joaquín Cuadra, Humberto Ortega's successor, announced that he would request a budget increase in 1996 to guarantee the army's capacity to mobilize, have a presence in the conflictive rural zones and strengthen its naval force in the struggle against drug traffic.
Should the budget line to fight drug traffic be assigned to only one of these institutions, it could spark tensions between them. The army is at a certain disadvantage. It only has its own voice to claim greater budget allocations, but the executive could feel obliged to support it due to its strategic interest in the army's reciprocal support. Many civilians and media of various stripes, however, seem to be putting their money on the police.
A real fight against drug traffic requires strengthening both armed bodies. Both maritime patrols and air vigilance, the army's responsibility, and control of the population, the job of the police, demand more resources. Both institutions need increased budgets, among other things to stimulate their troops in their difficult tasks. But the response cannot only be control or repression. Without an integral policy that undermines the social base of drug traffic, the root of the problem will not be reached, must less resolved.
Defensive actions should be combined with an offensive strategy to fight extreme poverty. Without job and job training campaigns and without providing a moral foundation for the population, the war against drug traffic will be lost over the long haul. The drug world has almost unlimited illegal financial resources for its survival, even against the best endowed armed forces in the world. If it succeeds in creating a social base in Nicaragua that allows it to swim like a fish in water, drug traffic will never be eradicated and society will end up segmented into two parts: a legal one and one of organized crime.
How to Defeat DrugsIt is strategic to understand that organized crime cannot be dealt with by public institutions that are themselves corrupt. It would be like assigning a surgeon with hemorrhagic dengue to perform open heart surgery. Cleaning up the morality of public administration, at all levels, is an indispensable condition for fighting drug traffic. And a key piece of that cleansing process is to modernize the state: unravel the fabric of patrimonial and family relations that are the basis of government functioning, and professionalize public service to make it a socially esteemed and valued occupation.
If this first step is not taken, the government will be abandoning civil society to its fate. If it is achieved, the second step would be to firmly weld social policy to an integral development policy scheme. The enormous challenges of this step are to generate productive employment, consolidate a better educational system at all levels, achieve self management in preventive health and eliminate extreme poverty in the cities and countryside. Without facing up to these challenges, social exclusion and lack of opportunities will turn many Nicaraguans into drug traffic victims. This will be only one of the bitter fruits harvested from the tree of official neoliberalism.
The "Logic" of TerrorismAfter the precarious stability obtained with the legislative executive accords regarding the constitutional reforms, Cardinal Obando y Bravo emerged as the only figure with enough weight to generate consensus in the country. The success of his mediation put him at the pinnacle of the political class, which sees him as the only arbitrator with the power to resolve its interminable disputes. This, however, makes the cardinal a political target.
This would seem to be the logic of the recent series of bombings with more spectacular and intimidating pretensions than destructive ones against a dozen Catholic churches in various cities of Nicaragua. It also seems to be behind the telephone threats against Cardinal Obando himself, which obliged the police to provide special protection for him in early September. The "thinking" behind these acts must be that he is the best target for anyone who wants to destabilize the country but has few resources and personnel.
The first police inquiries implicated former army officers and historic ex combatants of the FSLN, but nothing could be proven against them. The National Police offered 10,000 córdobas (about US$1,300) in July for any information about either those who did the bombings or the brains behind them. By the beginning of September, it had upped the reward to 100,000 córdobas, which was pulled together at the initiative of private enterprise. The persistence of the attacks on the churches, despite society's firm rejection of such methods, suggests that they are not the result of some ultra left spontaneity but rather of organized groups with a centralized command operating under traditional conspiratorial norms. Many agree that the modus operandi of these groups is also aimed at altering the electoral environment, since political leaders across the spectrum have received telephone death threats and many other institutions have been warned of supposed bombs, though so far all have been false alarms.
General Cuadra related the actions of these urban terrorist groups to the resurgence of rearmed groups in the northern and central part of the country. He also links those rural groups, which he refers to as "vandals," to the proximity of the elections, noting that any political groupings supporting them would be committing "political suicide."
His remarks are obviously something more than an unsubstantiated hypothesis. They suggest a broader line of terrorist action whose goal is probably to cast more and more shadows over the pre electoral arena in the hope of reducing the citizenry's participation in the contest, among other reactions. Abstention could only favor parties that, though lacking popularity among the majority of the population, do have a consolidated and faithful organizational base or political forces with enough financial resources to buy the consciences of individuals and small parties in a strategy aimed only at picking up institutional posts.
In the longer term, each exploding bomb shakes the underpinnings of Nicaragua's incipient democracy. Each one is a rejection of the grassroots option to resolve differences and problems in a civic and democratic fashion from here on. The population wants no more short cuts that lead to a collective catastrophe, but the authoritarian thinking of those who are behind these groups have not yet assimilated this fact.
Another objective of these terrorists, one of greater scope, may be to make the electoral process fail altogether, forcing its postponement beyond 1996. This would prolong the current government's weak grip on life. Given the current generalized consensus in favor of the elections, only a cataclysm that transfigures the landscape we are accustomed to seeing, such as the assassination of a major political figure, for example, could derail the elections. The grave risk of such a plan is that, although desired by virtually no one, it would unleash chaotic reactions that no one in the country could then control, with unpredictable and incalculable consequences.
For its part, the population increasingly wants the capacity to change the landscape with its vote; it does not choose to be pushed into having to take justice into its own hands. Most people want civilized coexistence, even if it takes time to change things. They also want exemplary punishment for those who commit violence.
Cracks in the Framework LawWhile the sparks of drug traffic and terrorism threaten our flimsy thatch roof, the political class continues with its skirmishes in the war for institutional positions. The relative calm achieved barely two months ago has already given way to fissures in the agreements signed by the executive and legislative branches in June's Framework Law.
The first crack appeared when 24 ministers, vice ministers and other high officials of the Chamorro administration filed suit charging that the new disposition requiring them to resign a year before the elections if they want to run for office is unconstitutional. Next came the scandal caused by eight executive decrees that would reorganize various state institutions with an eye to privatizing them. The decrees were published in August but dated prior to the Framework Law, which contains agreements about these reorganizations, to avoid discussion of their content in the National Assembly. The executive responded by calling on the legislators to "reflect" and not provoke a new political crisis. On September 6, the National Assembly voted down the new decrees by a wide majority.
The Assembly representatives have also been moving forward juridically, reforming the Law of Amparo (a sort of legal shelter) to invalidate the officials' suit in the Supreme Court and going ahead with the process to remove Supreme Court president Orlando Trejos Somarriba. The officials announced that they would appeal the reform.
The rocky marriage between the two branches could thus be on the road to divorce. June's political accords smoothed the catastrophic course the country was on, but did not create solid stability. They guaranteed neither a prompt resolution of the property problem nor the purity of the electoral process. A dense cloud of suspicion is gathering about the "fine print" that may have been behind the accords leading to the controversial Framework Law and its relationship to possible electoral alliances. With all this, the political class is virtually ignoring the enormous challenges facing the country and the new dangers at its door.
A Lack of ImaginationThe three or four most important political forces in the country the FSLN, the Liberals, Minister of the Presidency Antonio Lacayo's "National Project" and the "centrists" in the National Assembly have started throwing their hats in the ring, but with little imagination to date.
The National Project has opened fire with a battery of costly TV and radio spots. Lacayo immodestly presents his party as invincible. "Losing is as impossible as snow falling in Nicaragua," he declared. His own pose as "the great offended gentleman," who will not lower himself to fight the constitutional inhibition against his candidacy but will contemptuously ignore it, sets the tone of this political grouping.
His only concession to the constitutional reforms was to resign his ministerial position, which both he and Liberal Unity candidate Alemán did on September 7. Lacayo will be replaced by Julio Cárdenas, previously a presidential adviser and a man who enjoys the confidence of both Lacayo and President Chamorro. Undercutting Lacayo's stance as unbeatable, Alemán declared that the Liberals' only true rival in the 1996 elections will be Sandinismo.
The September 7 elections in the Supreme Council of Private Enterprise (COSEP) produced a board of directors favorable to the consolidation of PRONAL, which will be presented as the party of business interests. It is far from clear whether this will represent the interests of any businesses other than the largest ones, however.
The leaders of the FSLN, who retain a faithful base, calculated at about 15 25% of the electorate, are maintaining their tacit support of the government, even though they criticize it publicly. Meanwhile, they are seeking a "potable" electoral candidate, removed from the power disputes inside the organization and with a profile that tones down the radical rhetoric of the leaders themselves.
The tensions inside the FSLN prevent it from developing a proposal for the population as a whole. Lacking political imagination and a democratic opening, the FSLN has been left looking inward, consolidating and reconsolidating its base of already convinced. Instead of facing the great challenges laid out before the country with its former boldness, the FSLN insists on repeating its discourse and methods from the 1970s and 80s, ever more incomprehensible to a young generation that did not live through those years.
The Sandinismo of the "Renovators" is no less opportunist. Within the process of struggling for the constitutional reforms, the MRS and the Christian Democratic Union (UDC) showed that they were pursuing dual objectives, the main one of which was to improve their own position within the system. They lack mobilizing politics aimed at raising the population's organizational level and consciousness. Their style is one of apparatus building, long on democratist features and very short on leftist ones like PRONAL, the MRS prefers a center centrist profile. Following the approval of reforms and the Framework Law, both the MRS and UDC have shown signs of support for co administering with the executive which does not want to share even its errors, much less its administrative role. The newness of these parties, particularly the MRS, plus their political orientation make them electoral parties of the first order.
Meanwhile, Alemán's Liberals are plowing steadily and slowly ahead. They have launched their campaign with the greatest seriousness of any, and are now busily forging a persuasive and attractive discourse for the different sectors of the population. They are even busier at provisioning themselves with media with which to battle the powerful incumbent machinery of Lacayo's project and the mobilizing bases of their arch enemy, the FSLN.
The electoral offerings glimpsed so far are pretty sad. All are implicitly betting that they can take charge of the extraordinary national challenge all by themselves. The only ones who doubt it are the majority of Nicaraguans. No politicians are seeking even the minimum consensus that would give people any certainty that the vital issues will be dealt with, whoever comes to power in 1996. It is now up to Nicaraguans themselves, through pressure, creativity and organization, to transform the politicians' opportunism into an opportunity for politics, the art and science of working together for the common good.