The Alemán-Ortega Pact Has Bolaños on a Short Leash
Enrique Bolaños’ project is handicapped by adverse game rules
and hostage to the two caudillos who control the other branches.
Meanwhile, his war on corruption has left him with no party; the
economic recession is making him very unpopular;
and his highly image-based presidential style
doesn’t reflect the country’s reality.
The spurious deals that are so much a part of Nicaragua’s political life, absorbing the energies and sacrificing the autonomy of so many decision-makers, are again dominating the panorama. The election of nine new Supreme Court justices is the centerpiece of the power trading currently occupying the negotiators representing former Presidents Daniel Ortega and Arnoldo Alemán and current President Enrique Bolaños. The worsening political war within the Constitutionalist Liberal Party (PLC), the future of convicted embezzler Alemán, who is still effectively running the PLC, and the launching of a “second stage” of the fight against corruption are also fundamental pieces.
The ghost of the pactAlemán’s pact with Ortega during the previous government increased the number of justices in the Supreme Court (CSJ) from nine to sixteen, bloating the top bureaucratic levels, considerably increasing the budget and splitting the Court between loyal Liberals and Sandinistas. The objective of this blatant squandering of resources was nothing nobler than to guarantee the most important political and economic interests of both bands.
Five of the justices already sitting when that change was made finished their term in July of last year, but the political air was so thick at the time that it was impossible for the two caudillos to agree on their replacements. The court continued functioning, such as it does, with the eleven remaining justices; but in September of this year, the remaining four pre-pact justices will also come up for replacement. If there is still no agreement, the court will be paralyzed, as seven justices would leave the Court short of a quorum. The National Assembly representatives, who elect the replacements from among candidates presented, decided to choose all nine at once, before September.
The candidate list currently stands at 80, and includes proposals from diverse social sectors, the two main parties that control the National Assembly (the PLC and the FSLN), and, as of May 28, President Bolaños himself, who unveiled his dozen choices in a dramatic speech to the nation. “The ghost of the pact has returned to threaten our people,” said Bolaños. “The two caudillos who only recently entered into a pact to divide power between them just to benefit the political parties they represent must not now continue trying to divide among themselves the new Supreme Court of Justice that is about to be elected.”
Tightly tied knotsThis is no ghost; it’s reality. The FSLN’s 38 legislative representatives and the PLC’s 45 have proven themselves loyal soldiers of the pact’s two caudillos. They know that together they have the 92-member legislative body sewn up, and there is no way they will squander that power and risk their own political futures by electing judges—even if by far the most qualified—who are not to the liking of their bosses. How will it fall out: five justices for Ortega and four for Alemán or vice versa? The greatest deviation we could possibly expect is for them to elect one from Bolaños’ list and split the remainder evenly between themselves, following substantial horse-trading with the President.
The President is clamoring to cut the CSJ loose from such strong party influence—not to mention reducing the total number of justices—but those who created those ties have no interest in undoing one of the pact’s most strategic knots. Why should they? The pact’s game rules have brought the country to a new crossroads of governance, and created a major dilemma for Bolaños. To resolve it, the President is again seeking the support of ambassadors and leading figures from Nicaraguan civil society to wage a “civic battle” for his project through the media. But the real country is not responding. It has been too impoverished and too demobilized for way too long. This method of masking the President’s inability to untie the pact’s knots is extremely limited.
Alemán is the Keeping control of the judicial branch is obviously critical to both Alemán and Ortega, and Bolaños is as desirous of modifying the adverse correlation of forces in the court as they are of maintaining it. The FSLN holds the highest card in its deal-making with the Liberals on this issue, since Judge Juana Méndez, who obeys Ortega’s every order, determines the design and evolution of Alemán’s sentence. She is therefore responsible for decisions that could overturn Alemán’s conviction or, contrarily, transfer him from house arrest on his comfortable hacienda to the maximum security prison—which should already have happened. Even a preschool child knows that Ortega is not telling the truth when he repeatedly declares that Alemán’s fate “is in the hands of the judicial branch.”
wild card in any deal
Throughout the Alemán case, Méndez has acted slowly, cautiously and ambiguously, a good soldier following orders from above. New “moves” related to the case have been observed ever since the opening of negotiations to select the justices. There is talk of limiting the crime of money laundering to drug dealing cases, which could reduce Alemán’s prison sentence or open the doors to another type of sentence and even a pardon. On the other hand, a pro-Ortega journalist filed suit against Méndez for not having sent Alemán to prison yet (was it real pressure or a maneuver to dissemble what is really going on?). In any case, the Sandinistas and Liberals involved in this deal have tossed in their ante and are now testing each other’s hand to see how little they will have to raise to take the pot. It increasingly appears that Alemán is the wild card.
Bolaños got dealt The election of new justices is crucial for President Bolaños, because even before Alemán’s conviction, he never had the backing of legislators from the PLC, the party on whose ticket he ran, forcing him to make deals with Ortega to get his bills passed. His project to create a “Blue and White” bench, made up of Liberal representatives who shifted their loyalty from Alemán to him, has only weaned away 9 votes at best, which added to the FSLN’s 38 is barely enough to push through legislation requiring a simple majority. As Alemán once quipped, this fragile voting alliance is paralyzed if anyone even gets up to go to the bathroom. And its fragility is not only in the numbers. Ortega and his “soldiers” do not hide their distaste for Bolaños given his anti-Sandinista activism when the FSLN was in power. Bolaños, who has not given up his negative view of the FSLN, dissembles these forced deals rather than flaunting them defiantly as Alemán did in his day, an attitude that obviously outrages anti-Sandinista Liberals.
a losing hand
The election of justices offered Alemán’s supporters a new opportunity to try to wangle his freedom, and they reportedly offered Ortega the majority of justices in exchange for it. Meanwhile, they are harassing Bolaños with a new tactic: anywhere he goes on work visits, they plant Liberal activists in the crowd to demand their boss’ freedom, insulting and even threatening the President, raising banners calling him “ingrate, traitor, inept.” If allowed to go free, Alemán would reportedly agree to retire discreetly from activist politics and give up his plans to run for presidential office again. It is reasonable to believe that his addiction to power and glory would really permit him to leave the political stage?
The FSLN would obviously be very discredited if it directed Judge Méndez to free him, although with Alemán back on the scene, the Liberals would find it almost impossible to heal their splits, which would obviously work to the FSLN’s favor. Alemán’s liberty would also discredit Bolaños, since the international “pedestal” he built for himself was based largely on his decision to take Alemán all the way to the courts.
Faith has been Bolaños’ anti-corruption campaign unleashed a political war within the PLC that has had major consequences for the presidency. The positive results so far are a firm national and international denunciation of the hyper-corruption Alemán institutionalized during his government; a stampede by numerous implicated officials who are now fugitives from justice and convictions of top figures previously presumed untouchable—Alemán and Byron Jerez, his partner in crime. In addition, the shockwaves sent throughout the state institutions have had a rectifying effect on the behavior, if not underlying attitude, of most public officials.
the greatest casualty
On the evening of June 6, a jury found Jerez, head of the Alemán government’s revenue division (DGI), guilty of fraud against the state on one of seven major corruption charges filed against him by the Attorney General’s Office last year. Jerez has been in prison since April 2002, after the court determined that the evidence on all seven suits merited a trial. The sentence on this first charge actually tried (a check scam run out of the DGI office and involving other state institutions) ranges between two and twelve years. During the trial, Jerez appeared very optimistic as he talked with journalists, perhaps because four of the five jurors were Liberals and/or people he knew, but when he received the unexpected decision, an eight-year sentence, he broke down and cried. And it’s not yet over for him; he still faces trial on the remaining cases, and of course appeals on all convictions.
The day before the sentence, the Attorney General’s Office announced that in a “second stage” of the anti-corruption struggle, three US experts—former US Treasury Secretary and Undersecretary George Miller and William Nickerson, respectively, and ex- Congressman James Symington—will help locate, freeze and repatriate the public funds embezzled by officials of the past three governments. Two unidentified international institutions will finance the contracting of the three men. With respect to the corruption of the Sandinista and Chamorro governments, Attorney General Francisco Fiallos said, “Although the statute of limitations is up on some crimes, we are interested in making known who has benefited from the use of the people’s money.”
While the latter effort might improve the cards in Bolaños’ hand, a central point of the struggle up to now has been to clean out Liberalism, extirpating the Alemán clique, a focus that was apparently behind the limited progress and even backpedaling observed at certain points. Political interests have also been central to the FSLN’s “adhesion” to the President’s anti-corruption fight.
Daniel Ortega had been responsible for Alemán’s post-presidential immunity since one of the self-serving features of their pact was the passing of a law automatically making an outgoing President a lifetime non-elected representative to Nicaragua’s National Assembly. In December of last year, Ortega instructed his legislative bench mates to join the Blue and White bench in voting to strip Alemán of his immunity. It was a way to make himself valuable to Bolaños in implementing the projects Ortega himself wants in place before his self-predicted return to power in 2006 and to benefit the FSLN in the political war that Alemán’s conviction unleashed within the PLC. Since Ortega bases his every move on his perennial candidacy, the anti-corruption war has been marked by such calculations, ultimately leading the majority of the population, which allowed itself a flicker of enthusiasm last year, to lose all faith in its genuineness and continuity.
It must be added that this loss of faith was abetted by people’s difficulty remaining outraged about the Alemán circle’s illegal accumulation of public funds when Bolaños’ circle is doing the same thing legally. After a year of hostile press about the mega-salaries that top executive branch officials still receive despite Bolaños’ austerity discourse, three bills were presented in the National Assembly with variants of the same objective: to cut back or eliminate the lifetime pensions that former Presidents and Vice Presidents have been receiving since 1990, respectively $8,000 and $7,000 a month. One would reduce the pensions to only a year after leaving the post and another would prevent any individual from receiving more than one salary from the state. The most controversial case involves President Bolaños himself, who receives both his salary as current President and his pension as a former Vice President under Alemán. Worse yet, when his presidential term ends, Bolaños will receive four salaries unless the reforms are approved: two as pensions (as former President and Vice president), one as a representative of the Central American Parliament (all former Presidents automatically qualify), and one for the National Assembly post he will hold thanks to the pact he so despises. When the bills were announced, Bolaños made no effort to hide his opposition and the likelihood that he would veto any one that was approved. “Is it a patriotic law or does it have a nametag,” he complained, “just to deprive me of a right I have earned?” The legislators have already approved a bill to eliminate the $6,000-a-month lifetime pensions granted to former Supreme Court magistrates, on top of their $1,500-a-month social security retirement pensions. To put these salaries in perspective in such a poor country, it is worth remembering that given Nicaragua’s unequal distribution of wealth, many people, particularly in rural areas, are struggling to survive on under $2 a day—if they are lucky enough to find work.
Phase two of the During the first year of Bolaños’ administration, the President used his war on corruption to deflect attention from the lack of encouraging economic results. But the political cost of spending so many months going after Alemán was very high, so once the former President was convicted of massive corruption and money laundering and confined to his hacienda in December 2002, the fight was put on ice. And that is where we are today.
war on corruption
Now, since the heat of the transactions to elect the justices has melted that ice, the Office of Attorney General (PGR) has kicked off what it refers to as the “second stage of the fight against corruption.” Its first move was to take the wraps off another off-shore stash used during the Alemán government: nearly US$90 million laundered through an account called “Taiwan donation” that Alemán opened with public funds to be used at his discretion. In this new case, the PGR again accused Alemán, plus eight of his top officials, many of them already on the run, as well as Noel Ramírez, who was Alemán’s Central Bank president and is currently a PLC legislative representative.
It is expected that this new round will involve the dusting off of shelved cases in order to pressure more legislators to switch from the PLC bench to the pro-Bolaños Blue and White bench. Minister of Government Eduardo Urcuyo, one of Bolaños’ most active political lieutenants, admitted as much: “We are well within our right as a government to pressure ad infinitum to get votes. We have to pressure whomever we can. We did it to get Alemán stripped of his immunity and we’ll go on doing it.”
The dilemma is how to The project to purge the PLC of the pro-Alemán current, or at least the major expression of its corruption, was launched on June 23, 2002, under the guiding hand of Vice President José Rizo. A year later, this project has fallen flat; the touted “Bolaños current” of the PLC proved to be much ado about very little. And although Alemán has lost so much prestige that he has become an unmanageable drag on Liberalism as a whole, he still wields tremendous power within the party structures. Whether through obstinate political loyalty, gratitude for former favors or fear, the PLC bench members in the National Assembly remain under his control, along with all the party’s convention delegates and local board members throughout the country.
translate the project into votes
Bolaños has thus been unable to translate his political project into those all-important votes in the Assembly, and with municipal elections coming up next year, he and his supporters have every reason to fear that it will also not translate into votes in the ballot box. Will the same thing happen in the presidential elections two years later? Both elections could be a replay of the confrontation between Ortega’s handpicked candidates and those of Alemán. This no-holds-barred confrontation is part of an ongoing polarization between the two parties, spurred on by the deeply emotional pro-Sandinista and anti-Sandinista views that continue to exhaust the country, despite having a lot more to do with the past than with the present. Fear that the FSLN will be the net winner of the crisis within the PLC, added to the various nuances of anti-Sandinismo sheltered under the Liberal banner, led the Bolaños forces to speed up a risky new initiative: having failed to take over the existing Liberal party, they set out to create a new one.
But that new initiative came and went like a fragile soap bubble; blown into the air on May 6, it had burst by June 6. During its brief life, however, it wreaked havoc. It intensified the friction between the PLC Liberals in the legislative branch and those in the executive branch, and even produced new tensions, for example between Bolaños and Vice President Rizo, who came out against the new party and moved visibly closer to the Alemán side, without ever mentioning his name. Tensions were also evident between Bolaños and Treasury Minister Eduardo Montealegre, the most favored early presidential hopeful, who also avoided talking about Alemán but steered clear of the initiative, warning that “principles unite Liberals and only interests separate them.” Lest he had not made his position clear, he proclaimed on another occasion, “The unity of Liberalism passes through the PLC.” Other new tensions cropped up between Bolaños and two high-profile members of his already barely viable Blue and White bench, and between him and several of his advisers, who went on record as not supporting the idea of dedicating efforts and energy to this initiative.
Some for and some againstSome commented that the new party would be a “party of public employees,” fabricated from inside the government using public resources; a return to the old party-state formula so used and abused by the FSLN. No one thought to say that Alemán created the PLC the same way—from his position as Managua’s mayor between 1990 and 1995, when he resigned to run successfully for the presidency on the ticket of a six-year old party he forged through the use and abuse of municipal resources.
Others warned that the new party would have no time to create the required 152 municipal boards around the country, and that even if it did, it would be stopped by the pact-picked magistrates heading the Supreme Electoral Council, who loyally determine the legal status of political parties based on the seesawing interests of the pact masters. This argument was both correct and prudent.
It was also said that the new party would not be able to attract all Liberals, much less all anti-Sandinistas and the broader array of non-Sandinistas in the next election. Instead it would only divide the Liberal vote to the FSLN’s benefit first in the municipal elections and then, more seriously, in the presidential ones.
The Liberals promoting the new party countered that polls showed an immense majority of Liberals supporting the initiative out of a desire to cut loose from Alemán’s style of politics and the corruption it generated, and that this backing would translate into votes. They also argued that the utter impossibility of reunifying under the PLC banner had already been demonstrated, because Alemán continued to control the party and his backers always conditioned unification on his eventual freedom.
ARENA a la NicaThe Liberals’ internecine political war has a generational fault line running alongside another based on political philosophy. President Bolaños seems willing to pass the baton to a new generation of the Nicaraguan rightwing breed that has a truly postmodern vision of Nicaragua’s place in the world, a new leadership that can build and consolidate a center-right political option and head up a modernizing project to plug Nicaragua’s fragile economy into the global economy. Would they do this through the Central American-Free Trade Agreement (CAFTA) currently being negotiated with the United States? For economist Arturo Cruz, one of the thinkers behind such an option, CAFTA is “Nicaragua’s last chance to reinvent itself as a nation.”
This new leadership will need the organization of a modern political party, without the caudillo stamp that Alemán has imprinted, perhaps indelibly, on the PLC. In El Salvador, the rightwing business-oriented ARENA party successfully replaced the outmoded National Conservative Party years ago. Nicaragua’s big business interests apparently entrusted Bolaños to construct a Nicaraguan ARENA that would edge out the PLC, acting as a more modern and effective party that could put the brakes on the FSLN. Hypothetically, this new party would be more urban than rural and, as happened with the Salvadoran PCN, would leave the PLC in control of the rural sectors for some time to come.
Eduardo Montealegre also considers a modern party indispensable, but believes that this modernizing project can and should be carried out within the PLC. He has the political canniness to realize that there is no way to push through this modernizing project without controlling the executive branch, and that he can’t accomplish his own goal—the presidency—without riding on the PLC bandwagon. His attitude and that of PLC founder Rizo—also an aspirant to the presidency and to modernity—so undermined Bolaños’ party-building project that its promoters had to back off.
Bolaños’ hand is President Bolaños had announced that he would resign the PLC—to which he switched allegiance from the floundering Conservative Party only three years ago to launch his candidacy in the 2001 elections—and join this new party. His argument, which is undeniable, is that with the PLC having declared itself “in the opposition” several months ago, the President needs a party that backs his policies.
full of throwaway cards
Bolaños has almost nothing but throwaways in his hand. His government has no backing from the other branches and even before the PLC declared itself in opposition over the Alemán conviction, that nominally governing party did not approve of what he set out to do and made no effort to help. The pact is holding him hostage to game rules that give him extremely limited leeway. He no longer has the popular support he once enjoyed, because he cannot offer the economic results that would stimulate hope for the remaining years of his term. The anti-corruption struggle has lost its capacity to mobilize social energies. His cold leadership and businessman’s bearing do not mesh with the traditional political style our population still demands of its politicians, and he lacks the social sensitivity that would make up for it.
He can only point to two successes. One is that there are many more controls in the government now and government officials don’t feel the impunity they once did, so the theft of public resources is way down. The other is that Nicaragua has recovered the international credibility it lost when the Alemán government dragged its moral solvency through the mud. These are genuine show cards and should give his hand some gambling value, but they are not the kind that most people care enough about to cover his bet.
The latest idea is a plebisciteAfter weighing the fragile pros and clinching cons of trying to create a new Liberal party, Bolaños and his circle came up with a compromise: pull together a coalition of the five small Liberal groups—some old and some new—that recovered their legal status a few months ago. Together they would make up the Liberal Unity movement, which would then promote reunification with the PLC Liberals. This formula was definitely more pragmatic, but could it pull enough votes to defeat both the pro-Alemán remnants of the PLC and the FSLN? Given the current pact-generated game rules, it sounds as unlikely as the original idea, and for the same reasons.
The net result of all this public seesawing was to make the President’s isolation even more obvious and to further embolden the pact’s two caciques. They love it every time Bolaños trips up on a road where both have buried so many mines, and they know that all roads to change lead to the National Assembly—where their soldiers are all in position—and also require the backing of a political party. And finally they know that their two parties still have the hearts and minds of a large part of the population so polarized that a third party doesn’t have a snowball’s chance on a hot day.
Next, the Bolaños forces came up with the idea of a plebiscite, to let the population directly express its opinion about state reforms such as reducing the number of Supreme Court justices, Supreme Electoral Council magistrates and National Assembly members; reforming the electoral law; prohibiting a President from ever running for reelection rather than allowing two non-consecutive terms, etc. But it’s a Catch 22: the legislative branch decides on the rules of plebiscites and the electoral branch organizes them, and both are firmly knotted into the very pact that Bolaños aims to use his plebiscite to unravel.
Ortega and Alemán mocked the plebiscite idea; Ortega called it Bolaños’ “little banner” while Alemán’s spokes-people referred to it as his “new toy.” Fully aware of the President’s weakness, the two bands then raised the stakes with outlandish proposals, both of which involve cutting Bolaños’ term in office. The PLC proposed holding elections for a constituent assembly as soon as possible—at the very latest to correspond with next year’s municipal elections—to establish new rules of the game and “re-found” the state. We already know who would organize these elections and it is easy to imagine who the constituents would be. Ortega was even more audacious, proposing that all magistrates, justices, legislators, mayors and even the President himself resign, and both the municipal and presidential elections be brought forward to later this year. Again, there is no doubt about the circumstances in which these elections would be organized.
Both power groups would happily accept either of these preposterous “solutions,” confident that they would continue controlling all the institutions and posts they want and that Bolaños and any other pretender would be out of their way for a long time to come. But such intimidation also has an acceptable fallback role, without having to do anything more disruptive or politically unpopular: merely threatening to change everything ensures that in the end nothing changes. Given Bolaños’ weakness, it is a good bet that he would settle for leaving the country’s institutionality just as it is now, straight-jacketed by the pact’s rules of the game. It beats having to throw in his cards if they call his hand.
In God’s handsWill it be possible in Nicaragua to build not only a modern political party, but also a critical electoral mass with a modern mentality? Typical of the traditional mentality is a religiosity that turns the solving of complex problems over to God, abdicating one’s own responsibility and ignoring the kind of authentic spirituality that makes us responsible for our own lives, the lives of others and everything around us.
This traditional mentality accentuates people’s dependence, submission and impotence and annuls their autonomy, critical spirit, collective force and creativity. All of this feeds the traditional caudillo structures, both political and religious, and makes it easier to impose the current trans-national projects that are so damaging to national interests. When confused by the complexity of the circumstances, the traditional mentality caves in to feeling powerless and claims that there is no choice but to “put oneself in God’s hands.”
This powerlessness can be observed with increasing frequency in people’s decisions, and even more worryingly in the declarations of public officials. When fish were found floating dead along stretches of the Río San Juan, originally thought to be due to the dumping of agrochemicals from the Costa Rican side and later to a plague of small flying insects that somehow affect the water’s oxygenation, the deputy environmental minister offered his own variation of turning responsibility over to a higher power. “All we can do is wait for Mother Nature to be generous and send down lots of rain to clean the river,” he announced. At the same time, he confirmed that the mayor of San Carlos had been dumping the town’s sewage into the river, a practice that in Managua has almost killed off Lake Xolotlán. He failed, however, to mention any planned ministry measures to halt the use of this valuable national tourist resource as a sewer, which it was later learned has been going on for decades. Will this also be left in God’s hands?
Mayor of Managua Herty Lewites caved in to similar sentiments in the face of so many residents who thoughtlessly throw trash anywhere they feel like it, taking no responsibility for the disasters this causes. On May 25, the heaviest rains to fall so far this rainy season created chaos in the capital and led to the drowning of two people. The mayor rightly attributed much of the damage to the estimated 700,000 little plastic bags of ice water sold daily on the street that people simply toss anywhere, indifferent to the fact that they clog the street drains that carry runoff water to the city’s larger draining system. He proposed various initiatives to begin regulating those who sell the water, but all are complex to implement and no one wants to finance them. Beaten, he proclaimed that “God will either punish us or bless us,” in future downpours of what has been forecast as a copious rainy season.
Praying isn’t quite enoughThe Bolaños government has no development plan for Nicaragua as a whole. More specifically, the “clusters” plan so enthusiastically touted by the government offers no attention to the rural sector, so fundamental for the country’s economy. The rural issue is pivotal in the negotiations that Nicaragua and the rest of Central America are engaged in for a free trade agreement with the United States, which we have entered weakened by all our political divisions and at a serious economic disadvantage.
The country’s rural problems are complex, particularly after so many years of official abandonment and neglect. In this context, President Bolaños’ latest proposal is curiously simple: a presidential accord declaring the second Sunday of May each year as a National Day of Prayer, which he inaugurated by begging God to bless the crops by sending us rain. Cardinal Obando delightedly requested all parishes to offer public prayer on that day.
Not to be outdone, Protestant groups concerned about the complex political problems facing Nicaragua decided to make an “apostolic march” on Sunday, May 23, to entrust to God the Nicaraguan state and the morality of Nicaragua’s politicians, which they consider to be in grave crisis. Hundreds of people joined the march in support of the prayers offered by various evangelical pastors. When they reached the National Assembly building, the pastors deposited in God’s hands the country’s complex governance and national stability problems, including evils resulting from the pact such as the partiality of judicial and electoral officials and the party loyalties of the government branches. And that’s where we’re at.