Envío Digital
Central American University - UCA  
  Number 262 | Mayo 2003



We Don’t Ask for Favors, We We Don’t Ask for Favors, We

The coordinator of the “Boris Vega” People’s Legal Practice relates the experiences of this grassroots legal service in Masaya, which has achieved a number of notable successes.

Dolores Gómez

In the midst of the confusion of the first traumatic days following the FSLN’s electoral defeat on February 25, 1990, the distinguished jurist Boris Vega Sánchez brought a number of his colleagues together in Masaya for a series of sessions to analyze what lay ahead and what we could do. We were all driven by an urgent need to create a legal instrument that would defend the interests and rights of the poorest sectors.

Boris Vega was a revolutionary of Nicaraguan justice, a patriarch of the law and a very charismatic man. Two of his sons had died fighting the Somoza dictatorship. He himself had been vice-minister of justice during the first years of the revolution, participated in the special tribunals that judged members of Somoza’s National Guard and held various posts in the judicial branch during the revolutionary eighties. In 1990 he was presiding over the Fourth Region’s Appeals Court.

The revolution and the law

When the revolutionary government, which smashed the Somoza system and aspired to create a new one, was voted out of office, it bequeathed a Constitution—in force since 1987—that synthesized the people’s major political, social, economic, institutional and cultural aspirations, establishing a social rule of law and a participatory, not just representative, form of democracy. At the time of the electoral defeat, however, there were not yet any laws developing the new constitutional principles.

During the eighties, the revolution promulgated a number of laws, including the law of appeal on grounds of unconstitutionality, the agrarian reform law, the law governing the Office of Comptroller General, and the law governing the moral integrity of public officials, the only legal support available to the Bolaños government when it started its fight against corruption. Those laws, however, were very expedient responses to a number of serious problems created by the Somoza system, such as latifundia, corruption, usury, etc. The revolution didn’t create a new legal system in line with the new relationships of production and ownership that the revolution itself was generating. Perhaps it was too short a time: 10 years compared to the 500 that had passed since the conquest. Or perhaps the contra war during those same 10 years imposed too many limitations. Maybe. But it must also be said that the Sandinista Front never granted laws, institutions or the legal system the importance they should have in bringing about a social transformation.

“We don’t need lawyers in Nicaragua”

I had studied law at the University of Barcelona between 1974 and 1980. When I finished my course, I was not at all convinced that I should have chosen it. Nor did I see the importance that my studies might have in helping bring about social change in my country. So, for years I dedicated myself to teaching labor law and cooperativism in the most marginalized neighborhood in Barcelona and only practiced law to defend members of the neighborhood’s youth gangs. Not until I went to Masaya did I understand and became convinced of the importance of law in achieving social transformation.

A personal process based on my Christian faith had led me to decide to share my life with the Christian base communities of Latin America. I was involved in that process in 1988 when a Sandinista who was a national representative of the Nicaraguan Christian base communities came to Barcelona to share experiences with the Oscar Romero Committee, to which I belonged. When I asked if they needed any lawyers in Nicaragua he said, “We really don’t need any lawyers in Nicaragua!” Then I asked if they needed any theologians and he answered, “Ah, yes, we need them!” Only years later did I come to understand that they felt they didn’t “need” lawyers because the revolutionary mentality undervalued the law. I thus decided to go to Nicaragua as a theologian, arriving in Masaya in September 1989 to accompany the Christian base communities.

An obsolete legal system:
The poor are defenseless

A few months later, during the campaign for the 1990 elections, I participated in a vigil organized by the religious communities; Boris Vega and his wife had also been invited. I hadn’t met him yet and had no idea that my life was about to change. I still hadn’t told anyone in Masaya that I was a lawyer, but when I was introduced to Boris Vega, I told him for some reason, as though declaring my identity. I can still remember his reaction. He looked at me with his piercing blue eyes and said to me with great certainty: “We’re going to set up a grassroots legal practice,” because the poor people of this country are defenseless.” He had recently written a report in which he clearly predicted the FSLN’s defeat.

The people of Nicaragua really were defenseless. The country’s legal system was the obsolete result of colonial rule and the long years of the Somoza dictatorship. The whole legal framework was also obsolete. The judges had a totally legalistic mentality, meaning they were more interested in applying the law than ensuring justice or human rights.

The political will for the transformations proposed by the revolution had been backed up more by the army and the police than by laws and civil institutionality. The general defenselessness was accentuated by the 1990 electoral defeat, which implied a drastic shift in political determination. And when this crystallized into a political, social, economic and legal counter-reform, it was discovered that all of the reforms promoted by the revolution lacked a legal anchor. The agrarian reform, which had involved giving largely confiscated lands to cooperatives, was in the air because over 80% of the cooperatives existed de facto rather than de jure. During the 1980s, the National Farmers and Ranchers Union (UNAG) validated them, a guarantee that allowed the financial system to issue them credit. But the cooperatives did not legally exist; no statutes had been approved and they were not included in any registry. The situation was similar for the agrarian reform property titles that had been issued for usufruct purposes: none had been recorded in the Public Registries, where many properties were still shown to be in the name of people linked to the Somoza government. Most importantly in the case of properties confiscated by decree, the change in ownership was not backed up by the appropriate judicial resolutions. In legal terms, everything that the revolution had done involving property was completely up in the air at the time of the electoral defeat.

People were also legally defenseless in many other areas untouched by the revolution. For example, a great number of people who had finished serving prison sentences were still in jail because no lawyer had formally requested their release from a judge. So, in anticipation of the avalanche of legal moves to defend the advances made by the revolution that would accompany the change of government, and conscious of the widespread legal illiteracy, the Masaya People’s Legal Practice was born on August 20, 1990, in a very special context.

You have to know your rights to defend them

The FSLN acquired a legal awareness following the electoral defeat and made an effort to put things right in the three-month period between the elections and the handing over of power on April 25. Taking advantage of their parliamentary majority in the National Assembly, the Sandinistas hurriedly set about creating laws to protect some of what had been left dangling. One result was the agricultural and agroindustrial cooperatives law (law 84), which created some order for the cooperatives benefited by the agrarian reform and established a year’s extension for their legalization. Those months also produced the famous laws 85 and 86, which respectively established that physical possession of a house or lot was equivalent to holding a title deed and that people who had lived in a specific house or on a lot could become the owner. Meanwhile, law 88 dictated that the agrarian reform titles issued in the country could be recorded in the public property registries, thus establishing a new registry entry that cancelled out the previous one. Everything that should have taken time and been done in the right way was suddenly pushed through by hook or by crook.

In Nicaragua we entered a new stage in which we realized that armed struggle was no longer possible or viable. Arms had served the Nicaraguan people to defend their rights and lives against the Somoza dictatorship, but even had there been good reason for taking up arms following the elections, the right conditions didn’t exist. In this context, the law acquired a fundamental importance. A country’s legal system is nothing more than the ground rules a society establishes so that people can coexist and balance different, often contradictory, interests. We saw an urgent need to promote such ground rules, for people to know about them in order to participate and win their cases. This would stop them being defeated by those who were stronger or simply because they didn’t know the rules.

So we saw the law as a “weapon.” And just as people had to be taught to use weapons to free themselves from the Somoza dictatorship, we needed to teach them to use the law to defend their rights, to know the laws in order to interpret them and demand their application and to know how they are made to influence their formulation and preparation. We agreed with the slogan of the Nicaraguan Human Rights Center (CENIDH), “A right not defended is a right lost,” but added, “you have to know it to defend it.” It was strategically important to educate people to appropriate the 1987 Constitution, because many people didn’t know its full scope or the rights it proclaimed. It was important to convince people that when they asked for a health center, a school, free education, a house, water, light... they were not asking for favors, but demanding rights granted to them by the Constitution.

The Legal Practice’s three objectives

We decided to turn the People’s Legal Practice into an efficient, professional, honest and pedagogic instrument that would accompany people on this path to new awareness. The first objective we established was to bring the administration of justice, laws and the state closer to the people, particularly the poorest sectors. It was necessary to reduce the huge distance between the people and the laws and institutions. To achieve this we offered people legal advice and assistance that was free if they couldn’t pay and affordable if they could. This advice and assistance would be offered in all branches of the law, including civil, penal, labor, administrative, agrarian and family law.

We established a number of principles. None of our lawyers could ever participate in a trial to evict someone. We know that poor people are not always right just because they are poor, and we know that sometimes owners are right to evict someone, but we won’t go to court to defend them. In labor law, we can never take the side of the business involved; we can only support the workers. After a while, we also specified that our services may only be used in favor of women who are victims of violence and never in favor of the man. All of our lawyers and notaries also work exclusively for the legal practice and promise not to profit from any other legal affair. The economic resources we obtain from those who can pay are shared equally among us. For us, providing legal assistance does not imply just taking the case and trying to win it. We also want people to play an active role in their own defense and personally and collectively improve their knowledge of the law.

Another of the practice’s objectives is to propose an alternative form of law and a new professional way of operating based on ethics. In Nicaragua, lawyers have been closely associated with unscrupulous practices and even fraud. It is a very mercantile profession and people feel that lawyers are only interested in extracting money without really understanding what they do.

The third of our fundamental objectives was to help strengthen social organizations. We are aware that the social transformations we want can only be obtained through organization and therefore decided to strengthen existing organizations such as social movements, unions, women’s associations, rural district development committees… This involves getting them legal status so they become subjects of the law, can increase their level of security and defend their rights. We also proposed promoting the establishment of new organizations to defend community interests. The practice has indeed had some success in helping strengthen existing organizations and promoting new ones. During our first years, for example, we supported the Masaya Tenants Front.

Our work with organizations seeking legal status is very important because the process involves training on participative democracy. Many leaders of grassroots organizations internally reproduce the same defects and vices for which they criticize government officials. They fail to honor their own organization’s bylaws, don’t allow their members any participation, impose their viewpoints and make individual decisions. Meanwhile, many members don’t know their organization’s statutes, which express their own rights and obligations. As a result, drawing up statutes with the organization’s members and making them appropriate those statutes is strategic work in Nicaragua, because only organizations with internal democracy, both representative and participatory, can guarantee democracy in the country.

Myths based on ignorance

Over the years we’ve learned a lot about how people are positioned with respect to the law and vice versa. There is a great distance between the laws and the people. And this distance, partly created by people’s ignorance of the laws and institutions, not only generates defenselessness but is a breeding ground of corruption and impunity.

This ignorance also generates many myths, which through persistent and honest work we have helped challenge and even eliminate. Such myths include the belief that a document is only valid if written on special legal paper with an official seal, which costs three córdobas (20 cents) a folio. It is thus assumed that property documents can only be written on such paper. All of the property title deeds issued by municipal governments under law 86 are considered recordable public documents, like an official legal document, but because they are not written on sealed paper many people believe they aren’t valid. The legal value of the document is not based on whether the paper is sealed or not, but by its nature in relation to its legal classification. We are currently investigating cases in which public offices and private businesses are demanding that people use sealed paper—which is taxed—for their procedures, even though it is not legally required.

It is also commonly believed that when a lawyer turns up at someone’s house demanding a payment or announcing a sequestration or eviction, everything is lost and you have to pay up or be evicted, as if a lawyer’s word were law. What people don’t know is that in any decision related to property, the only recognized voice is that of the judicial authority, and even then only following a trial that lasts a certain time and must culminate in a firm sentence. Another myth related to the work of lawyers and notaries is that you just have to get a notary to produce a legal document in order to settle a property issue and that’s that. But there are unscrupulous notaries who produce legally unsupported documents with the sole objective of extracting money. Meanwhile people think that if you don’t pay a debt you’ll go to jail, although the Constitution establishes that nobody can be sent to jail just for being in debt. However, the combination of the obligation to pay—poor people tend to be very good payers—and the inability to do so terrifies people. Yet another myth is that going to court somehow affects your reputation, even if you’re only going to testify for a neighbor. For some evangelical communities it is even more shameful and they refuse to go, claiming that God forbids it.

Some myths are not entirely unwarranted, as they have been generated by historically corrupt practices. Many of these myths express just how far removed justice is from the people, despite the fact that the Constitution establishes that justice emanates from the people, is imparted in their name and should be free; that judges are the people’s servants and serve justice to give everyone what corresponds to them within a legal framework that guarantees equality in the eyes of the law. Such principles are completely unknown by the people who see justice as an enemy rather than their servant.

Laws should reflect our own realities,
not distant realities and political wills

If people are ignorant of the law, the law will ignore them. The country’s legal system and the procedures required for the laws to be applied do not take people into account. The Civil Procedures Code is a good example of just how large the gap is between the people and the law. This body of regulations is fundamental to the application of the law, but it dates back to the 19th century. Not only is it obsolete, it was also influenced by European culture, which is different from Nicaraguan culture and therefore creates absurd situations. Another example is the Civil Code itself, which also dates back to the 19th century and includes categories established over 100 years ago to defend the interests of the European bourgeoisie that emerged from the French revolution.

One clear example of this distance between foreign laws and autochthonous culture is the idea of “the community,” a territorial, cultural, political, economic and social entity passed down from the indigenous conception of territorial division. “The community” is a reality that you run into every day. People say that “this water project, this cemetery, this kindergarten… belong to the community.” The problem is that Nicaraguan law doesn’t recognize “the community”; it only recognizes a Spanish-influenced division of territory based on municipalities. So I can’t legally register anything in the name of “the community” of Quebradahonda or “the community” of El Paso or of any other community in the country. This is just one example of the divorce between our laws and the country’s cultural, patrimonial and territorial reality, which generates a kind of juridical-social schizophrenia. It is true that the bill on civic participation, which has been in the pipeline for some time now, contains certain articles aimed at creating a mechanism to provide “communities” with the legal status to acquire their own patrimony. But this is only a superficial regulation and should not be the law that legislates on this issue. It is an important enough issue to warrant its own law. The Constitution recognizes “community property” but there is no law to regulate this novel concept. One of our aspirations is for the laws to reflect our reality, rather than other realities and political wills that are removed from the people’s interest.

This divorce between the law and cultural reality is expressed in many different ways, and people have to deal with many obstacles in their search for justice. For example, when litigating in civil cases involving large amounts of money—over 20,000 córdobas (US$1,340) in Managua and over 15,000 córdobas ($1,000) in the departments—all case documents must be written on the costly sealed paper mentioned above. Further obstacles include the fact that people must submit a deposit when filing suit, and that the police will work overtime to detain a poor person but suddenly have schedules and timetables when it comes to responding to a writ of habeas corpus for a poor person. Then there is the scandal that it can actually take judges or courts years to issue a sentence even though they legally have only 72 hours or some other fixed time limit to do so; in contrast, people who have only three days to appeal lose all right to defend themselves an hour after that deadline expires. Such obstacles and rigid practices clearly do not consider people because they hinder the process and violate the constitutional principle that everyone is equal in the eyes of the law.

Ignorance, disinformation and legal illiteracy

Another generalized myth is that money is the only obstacle to accessing justice. It is thought that if I have the money to hire a lawyer, the lawyer does everything and justice will be done. We sustain, and practice has born us out on this, that obstacles to accessing justice are not only economic in nature. Ignorance, disinformation and legal illiteracy are almost equally obstructive. Anyone who knows the law and the right procedures will face fewer obstacles in ensuring that justice is done. But many people are totally unaware of the scope of a judicial summons, for example, and if they receive one at home announcing a trial for an eviction or a levy of execution, they might not be able to read it or interpret it, and might not have the money to get a lawyer to explain it. And that, essentially, is that. So a whole trial against them takes place without their ever realizing it, because successive notifications only appear on the court’s announcements board, and nobody goes to court to read the announcements board. In the end, the trial passes such people by, their appeals deadlines come and go and the sentence against them remains firm. And when the judge arrives to evict or sequestrate them, they lose everything without ever knowing any step of the process against them and without being able to intervene in any way. We have seen so many cases of pathetic defenselessness because deadlines have passed due to illiteracy or the inability to interpret a judicial summons, or because the person didn’t understand how to testify or to reply to interrogatories. In Masaya, our legal practice has become a reference point, where people can come to avoid all of this and defend themselves when the moment comes.

In terms of educating people to be legally literate, it is very important to foster a culture of redress that will eliminate many of the obstacles blocking access to justice. The impotence that people experience in public offices makes them think that they can’t demand anything. But they can. We have discovered over the years that with information, training, organization and a legal instrument at your service, and sometimes with the support of the media, important legal victories can be achieved in favor of grassroots interests.

Defending the interests of the defenseless

A basic principle of legality incorporated into the Constitution is that a public official can do nothing, absolutely nothing, that is not authorized by the law; it’s one of the ground rules. The opposite is true for citizens; no citizen is impeded from doing anything not forbidden by the law, nor obliged to do anything not dictated by the law. Neither the people nor the officials know or apply this in Nicaragua. But these principles provide a lot of room for maneuver in appealing against officials and organizing to demand that the law be upheld. Despite the high corruption levels, the country does have a basic legal level that allows a great number of cases to be won according to the existing laws. In 12 years, our practice has benefited thousands of inhabitants, 62% of them women. It has won 100% of the labor cases it has fought on behalf of workers, either by getting the business to negotiate or through favorable sentences. We have also won all cases involving women demanding maintenance from the fathers of their children under the Alimony Law. In this way, we have contributed to social stability in Masaya.

A people’s practice is not a group of lawyers that charges less or offers free services. It’s something much more comprehensive. It involves creating an integral legal instrument that defends the interests of the defenseless, and is fundamentally about creating an arena in which the people get involved. The work ranges from legal representation in a trial to legal training; from constitutional oversight of legal norms to the preparation of bills incorporating the experience and participation of those involved; from legal literacy work to mediation aimed at resolving the community’s conflicts extra judicially. It also involves coordinating and collaborating with, or making demands of and complaining to, the state institutions and officials whose mission it is to apply justice, including judges, courts, the office of public prosecutor, the office of attorney general, the police, public administration entities and municipal governments.

Usury: A nationwide problem

In the People’s Legal Practice we have won important legal victories combining all of the above factors. Perhaps our most historic victory was in the fight against usury. One night in 1992 a women came to the practice in tears. She was afraid she was going to be evicted, as she was being taken to court to have her house taken away from her. The woman had a small business and had borrowed $2,000 from a man who was charging her a flat monthly interest rate of 20%, which meant paying the interests every month and never paying off the principal. It was a time when many of the revolution’s achievements were being rolled back by decree, especially in the area of property. At the same time, unemployment was growing by the day and many people were out of work. With the privatization of the financial system, 60% of the credits received by small and medium producers, craftspeople and traders disappeared. People didn’t have financing to work and the usurers were making a killing.

The woman had managed to pay the lender the usurious interests for the first six months, but then her little business had gone broke and she still owed the $2,000. The worst thing was that the man had made the woman sign away her house as a guarantee because he could not establish such high interest rates in his loan contract, as they amounted to usury and were therefore illegal. And this promise was recorded in a public document witnessed by a notary. An increasing number of similar cases started turning up at the practice and we discovered that far from being isolated cases, this was a common situation throughout Masaya and the rest of the country. Hundreds, thousands of affected people were facing eviction from their houses, which were worth far more than the value of the original loan. It amounted to a risk- and tax-free “perfect crime,” blessed as it was by a notarized document. After a short while people began coming to see us from as far away as Chinandega, León and Matagalpa, because lawyers were refusing to defend them on the grounds that they’d already signed away their house and nothing could be done about it.

So what could we do? We detected that judges in Masaya were covering up for the usurers; that many notaries had agreed to draw up these house sale documents even though they knew they were aiding and abetting usurers. We had to unravel that legal tangle using the law. Investigating the matter further, we found a decree issued by the revolutionary government in 1981, called the Law of Nullity of Obligations for Excessive Interest. Armed with this law, we started to organize the people of Masaya in February 1993. Soon the organization had spread throughout the country. We managed to win over the media, which ran front-page stories highlighting this dramatic situation and even naming usurers. It also turned out that certain parliamentary representatives were involved in the usury mafias.

The anti-usury law

We realized that the 1981 decree was not enough to deal with the situation. We had to draw up another, more wide-ranging law. Julio Marenco, an FSLN representative for Masaya, helped us a lot with that initiative. We managed to get the National Assembly to create what was called the Special Anti-Usury Commission, and with the people’s participation we drew up a bill that was subsequently passed as Law 176, the Law Regulating Loans among Individuals, popularly known as the anti-usury law. This law was passed in June 1994, and although only 50% of our proposal was accepted, we considered it an enormous success, because that legislation had been drawn up in our Legal Practice, listening to those affected.

By then, we were dealing with so many cases that we succeeded in breaking everything down until we could encapsulate it in a law that corresponded to the exact needs of the people and was perfect for dismantling the usurers’ plan. The main objective was to create a legal instrument that would annul the public documents authorizing the sale of houses, which were covering up scandalous crimes of usury. And we did it. In all of the cases involving people who got organized, we were able to demonstrate that it was a question of usurious loans rather than the sale of houses. We managed to transfer most of the cases to the extra judicial negotiating table, and we won them all. Later, in 1995, we succeeded in getting legal status issued to the National Association of People Affected by Usurious Loans.

One of the reasons it wasn’t possible to get our original draft law passed in its entirety was that rightwing parliamentary representatives and even “financial” businesses belonging to the FSLN were involved in usury. Despite such limits, the effort produced several positive effects: the usury law led to the disappearance of such sizable exorbitant-interest loans between individuals, the people who got organized to take on the usurers saved their houses, and all of the usurers had to agree to negotiate, of course lowering their interests, which fell from 20% to 5%. In Masaya at least, the people’s organization and the practice’s intervention ensured that none of those affected lost their houses, and the law—which though in need of updating is still in force—brought this plague under control. Of course, the fact that poor people have no access to credit has not yet been resolved in Nicaragua, so small micro-financing companies soon followed on the usurers’ heels…and a lot more could be said about that. In fact, the People’s Legal Practice has just finished a research project with the Central American University (UCA) on the activity of micro-financing institutions in Managua’s markets and in rural and urban areas of Masaya and Carazo, focusing on usurers.

Legalizing spontaneous settlements

Another of the practice’s successes, which shows just what people can achieve when they appropriate the law, revolved around Law 309 for the Regulation, Organization and Titling of Spontaneous Human Settlements. After what was resolved, or left unresolved, by Law 86, which had provided the blanket legal framework for the neighborhoods created in the 1980s, people occupied new urban lots in the nineties and set up houses and settlements de facto. Unlike in the previous decade, these settlers were desperate to obtain their title deeds, because without one they had no guarantee of remaining there, nor could they participate in any housing or social infrastructure project. Law 309 was passed in June 1999, in a political environment in which it was in the politicians’ interest to pass social laws, particularly this one, around which great expectations had been generated. The law reflects the fact that it resulted from a particular political moment. Laws that are approved not out of legal or ethical awareness, but rather fleeting political opportunism, are usually badly formulated, lack appropriate legislative technique and regulations and establish things that either prove difficult to apply or are never applied at all.

There were many spontaneous settlements in Masaya. After lobbying for passage of the law, we called for it to be honored, anticipating the normal paralyzing excuse that it lacked the necessary regulations. There were many obstacles. In order for a law not to be limited to the paper it is written on, as has happened with so many others, the people need to appropriate it and employ their own means to negotiate its fulfillment. At the end of 1999, we coordinated with the people from the Community Movement and together with the leaders of the neighborhoods involved we visited all of the spontaneous settlements in Masaya, meeting with the people and explaining the scope of the law to them. Our main message was, “You’re no longer going to ask the mayor to do you the favor of giving you a title deed; you’re going to demand that he uphold the law, which is a different thing altogether.” It’s worth noting that explaining this law, or any other law, isn’t a question of gathering people together and reading them the full legal text, which nobody would understand, but rather explaining it in workshops, using all the dynamics of popular education, including games and socio-dramas, until people really understand its scope and its mechanisms, and appropriate it.

Law 309 established that each settlement had to establish a residents’ association in order for title deeds to be issued; but it didn’t say how to create them. So, based on the constitutional precept that nobody is impeded from doing what the law does not forbid or obliged to do what the law does not dictate, we started to set up residents’ associations. We gathered each neighborhood together in an assembly to elect an executive committee, established basic norms for the associations created in the framework of Law 309, and recorded everything in notarized public documents. We created all of the associations needed and in so doing the people became aware that they were on the right road to obtaining their title deeds. Once they were organized, we held a forum in Masaya attended by all members of the National Assembly’s Population and Development Committee, the mayor of Masaya and all parliamentarians representing Masaya to discuss Law 309. With the 2000 municipal elections just around the corner, the timing was perfect.

The legislators arrived at the forum to explain the law, but as the five hundred organized people from the neighborhoods who turned up already knew it perfectly well, things turned out very differently to what normally happens in such events. Not only did the residents know the law and how to argue about its scope, they also advised the authorities that they were already formally established in associations and presented the relevant documentation. They then publicly demanded recognition of all of the settlements and the issuing of their title deeds. How could the mayor refuse in front of so many informed and organized people who were demanding fulfillment of a law that had already been passed? He couldn’t and didn’t; he subsequently involved his office in legalizing all those neighborhoods. This demonstrates the strength of the law when we turn it into a weapon with which the people can guarantee their rights and ensure they are respected.

Using foreign cooperation to good effect

The People’s Legal Practice obtained resources from Swiss cooperation to guarantee all the operative procedures for the legalization and titling processes. We have been using those resources for three years now and making progress. We’ve already completed over a thousand property title deeds and this year we will finish all the remaining ones in the municipal seat of Masaya. The project has also spread to all other municipal governments in the department of Masaya. The factors contributing to this great success were that the people were organized and knew the law and their rights, the existence of a legal instrument, suitable political lobbying (in this case the media had very limited involvement) and international cooperation.

It should be added that in a country where international organizations have tried—often unsuccessfully—to solve the property problem in the name of good governance, spending huge amounts of money on advisers, diagnostic studies, consultations and research, our project to legalize Masaya’s spontaneous settlements has been very cheap. The cost of each title deed averages out at just $70, including everything from the workshops to explain the law to all of the legal work and the preparation of cadastres, plans and censuses. This shows it is possible to resolve a great many problems through honesty, quality work and above all organized people.

This has been a highly valuable experience for us. And the practical experience we have built up in applying the law is allowing us to support the current reform of Law 309 in a constructive and concrete way. Such a reform is necessary because of the law’s many inconsistencies; for example, it talks of creating a trust for certain kinds of private occupied lands, when is no law that regulates the relevant procedures.

“The consumers call the shots”

We are having further success in the area of consumers’ rights. The Consumers’ Defense Law was passed in Nicaragua in 1994, but like so many other laws, nobody knew about it, including the officials responsible for applying it. It even seemed that the representatives who passed it didn’t know about it, as they made no attempt to disseminate it. In the People’s Legal Practice, we feel that developing this law, organizing consumers around it and teaching them to demand their rights is a strategic move in a neoliberal system that revolves around the market god, in which the main players are the suppliers and the consumers. It was something very new, because there is no culture of consumer complaint in Nicaragua and the mechanisms for doing so are not at all simple. We understand that the consumers’ struggle is a long-term one, but it is strategic given all the philosophy and ideology behind that struggle in the market system that we have been allotted. We started to work under the slogan “It’s we consumers, united and organized, who call the shots in the market.”
In Masaya, people have already been organizing as consumers, particularly around demands related to basic water and electricity services. Experience has shown us that the president of the Spanish-owned electricity distribution company Unión Fenosa has more say on the electricity service than Nicaragua’s President. He overrides the President, who doesn’t complain or represent the people’s interests. Given this situation, there is no alternative but to organize the consumers so they can represent themselves and complain about the rising tariffs or quality of the service, so they can sit down at the negotiating table and agree on rates and the conditions involved in the supply contracts.

We started working to disseminate the law among the people and demand that it be regulated, which it subsequently was. In 1999, we started to study the law, along with the social organizations and natural leaders in all of Masaya’s municipalities. That work took us a whole year. The law recognizes that a legally constituted consumers’ organization can represent its members in any suit and must be acknowledged by the suppliers. We concluded the training process by constituting the Masaya Consumers Association (ACODEMA), the first legally registered Nicaraguan consumers’ association. When we started, nobody believed in the project; but there it is, active and effective. After almost three years, results are starting to be seen and a culture of consumer complaint and demand is beginning to emerge in Masaya. It’s complicated, but when you specialize, you get to know the ins and outs of complaining and today any institution will open its doors to ACODEMA, which enjoys recognition and authority among both institutions and the people.

In addition to the political work involved in organizing consumers to demand their rights, we’ve also seen economic results. ACODEMA attended 3,452 consumers in its offices between January 2002 and March 2003, of which 995 were complaining about irregularities in the electricity service. ACODEMA resolved 641 of these complaints in favor of the people, while 333 are pending resolution and only 21 failed to receive a favorable response. These demands recovered no less than 1,008,802 córdobas ($67,704) for the successful claimants, for an average of about $100 per complaint. ACODEMA also dealt with 297 complaints from drinking water consumers. Of these, 241 were favorably resolved, 52 are still pending and only 4 came to nothing. In this case, 64,605 córdobas ($4,335) were recovered.

Unconstitutional education reform

In its 12 years of existence, the “Boris Vega” People’s Legal Practice has worked in a thousand and one different areas. Another example is our work related to the education system. All of the recent changes in that field are illegal because the country has no General Education Law and officials have been imposing their plans according to their particular ideology. The Primary and Secondary Education Regulation is a legal non-starter, as well as being unconstitutional, because it doesn’t regulate any law and wasn’t even published in the official government paper La Gaceta, as legally required to go into effect. The same is true of the school autonomy scheme, which hasn’t been established in any law and grew out of a simple, unpublished ministerial agreement. A minister can’t impose norms on the educational system; norms have to be set by parliamentarians, who supposedly legislate in the name of the people. A minister can’t do anything that isn’t authorized by the law. And yet school autonomy—a de facto privatization of the public education system through which the state transferred its responsibilities, particularly its financial ones, onto school councils and from there onto the parents, who are least able to assume such a burden—was imposed anyway. But not in Masaya. In Masaya school autonomy could not be imposed on any public school because right from the start the Legal Practice introduced appeals of unconstitutionality at the request of the unions belonging to the National Association of Nicaraguan Educators (ANDEN), forcing suspension of this illegal administrative measure. In 2000, to fill this legal vacuum and state of illegality, the National Assembly passed the Educational Participation Law and promulgated its regulation. Apart from generating chaos in the schools, it is also openly unconstitutional, as is currently being argued in the Supreme Court.

Justice for all?

One of our aims as an alternative legal system is for every Nicaraguan citizen to have access to justice under equal conditions and without discrimination. This is a fundamental right. In Nicaragua, those who don’t have the resources to pay for legal services are generally discriminated against. How can they pay even for the legal procedures that accompany any action: the paperwork, the photocopies, the stamps, the transport? Free justice in Nicaragua has never existed in practice; there is no official body dedicated to guaranteeing full access to justice or removing obstacles. The only thing that has been theoretically provided is the idea of public defenders. But even this has been a chimera in practice, as public defenders have always operated with some form of payment. This state of defenselessness, along with the need to provide advisory services and assistance to the poorest sectors, was one of the main reasons behind the birth of the “Boris Vega” People’s Legal Practice and other such initiatives set up by our colleagues in Matagalpa, Estelí, León, Chinandega and Managua.

This could start to change, but only over the long haul. The new Organizational Law for the Judicial Branch went into effect in January 1999, finally establishing a public defender system with a broad philosophy and scope. This system is aimed at legally guaranteeing free legal services to those with limited resources, who are classified as people with a family income of under $430 a month, thus covering most of the population. The law establishes that anybody in this category who requests a lawyer in any branch of the law must be attended completely free of charge. It also offers special attention for women heads of family.

This system started up two years ago, although due to a lack of resources it was only established in the district courts in Managua and even then only for penal cases involving the most severe sentences. It has now widened its scope and 40 officials are working as public defenders in the district penal jurisdictions. But people still don’t know about this new service. Whether because of its limited capacity or the limited resources assigned by the state, those responsible have not given it much publicity, perhaps afraid that they won’t be able to cover the demand. But the public defender system does now exist and is functioning, and people should know about it. The state will be forced to assign it more resources as more and more people demand this service—not asking for a favor but demanding their rights.

On April 28, the “Boris Vega” People’s Legal Practice signed a collaboration agreement with the public defender’s office for a pilot experiment in the department of Masaya to guarantee free public defense for everyone with insufficient income in all branches of the law, including penal defense, women’s alimony demands, family law, agrarian law, administrative law and labor rights. We consider this an historical initiative and the idea is for it to extend from Masaya to the rest of the country’s departments. The philosophy behind this initiative is one of organized civil society collaborating with the state to ensure that it honors its responsibilities. From now on, people who come to us in need of such services will be referred to the public defender’s office; those who cannot pay will not be charged, but we will ask for contributions from those who can pay but sought us out because they were attracted by our honesty and professionalism.

For 12 years, the People’s Legal Practice has effectively acted as the public defender’s office for the people of Masaya, in the absence of any state system. On our tenth anniversary, in recognition of this commitment, we received the Antonio Montesinos award for a Prophetic Gesture in Defense of Human Dignity in Latin America, awarded every year by the Dominican Order and the Latin American Diary.

How many more years will we continue to work in this area, with this orientation? We are quite conscious that it is the state’s obligation, not ours, to guarantee everybody free access to justice. The day the People’s Legal Practice closes will be the day everyone is guaranteed access to justice under equal conditions and we have a legally educated and organized population that is the active subject of civic participation. That will be a day of great celebration for us, but there is a long way to go before it dawns. Meanwhile, we will be guided by the words of Boris Vega, who still accompanies us and lights our way. On our third anniversary, the last that he celebrated with us before he passed away in November 1993, he told us, “Justice cannot be blind; it has to have its eyes wide open to see the difference between the weak and the powerful, to be able to equalize them. Because it is illusory to talk of equality for the past 11 years, when some enjoy wealth and others go hungry.”

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