Three Celebrations and a Host of Scenarios
Did Vice President Rizo really attempt a coup against his boss? Will Daniel Ortega get Arnoldo Alemán out of prison, and if so, when?
What role will Eduardo Montealegre play in the Liberal split? Will the state reforms free the institutions from party ties or will they further consolidate the PLC-FSLN pact?
Such questions waft in the putrid air of impunity
July’s three political anniversary celebrations—by the pro-Alemán
Liberals on July 11, the pro-Bolaños Liberals on July 13 and the FSLN on July 19—offered enough signs to activate the crystal balls of those analysts dedicated to predicting the possible national scenarios into which these three poles of power could drag the country in coming months.
PLC: “Justice for Arnoldo”The Constitutionalist Liberal Party (PLC) remains firm in its institutional loyalty to former President Arnoldo Alemán. The priority of all its top officials is to ensure his release from the comfy house arrest imposed following his indictment on extremely serious corruption charges. What would happen afterward is not quite as clear. The PLC’s political aim is to cut a deal with the FSLN to get President Bolaños—whom the party devoutly wishes it had never accepted as its presidential candidate—out of their respective paths through a Constituent Assembly or by bringing forward the elections.
MUL: Liberalism without ArnoldoThe priority of the Liberal Unity Movement (MUL)—an alliance of six small Liberal parties headed up by President Bolaños and a number of his ministers and other top officials—is to win over the Liberal grass roots in time to make a proper showing in next year’s municipal elections. But the seduction isn’t working and the alliance’s adherents are growing increasingly aware of its weaknesses. These include the fact that the PLC’s own powerful structures are unshakably loyal to Alemán; that President Bolaños’ initial popularity is eroding; that his assault on Alemán and his embezzling cohorts has lost credibility; and that the country’s traditional political culture is resistant to the model Bolaños is peddling. Perhaps most serious of all, the majority of people, increasingly poor and jobless, have been clamoring for prompt responses. Not surprisingly, they evidence no interest in the discourse of highly paid officials in suits and ties who continually ask them to be more patient while holding out little more hope for their future than sweatshops.
The Bolaños team’s political aim is to push through a package of state reforms that would unpick the tightest knots of the PLC-FSLN pact, those tying up the judicial and electoral branches. This package was to have been unveiled on July 30, but the presentation was cancelled. While the reforms have the unqualified support of resident ambassadors and international institutions, they are probably doomed, since they would have to be approved by the National Assembly and the vast majority of legislators loyally take their orders from either FSLN General Secretary Daniel Ortega or Alemán. And as reforms such as these are the least of most Nicaraguans’ concerns, they can expect little backing from that quarter either.
The PLC rejected outright any institutional reform that might come from Bolaños. Party officials claim that his reforms are aimed at “marketing primitivism with a letterhead of modernity and revealing his feudal airs,” while simultaneously engaging in “an irresponsible, intolerable and dangerous war to subject” the other branches of state, “accompanied by those who resent any other majority political institution” (read PLC and FSLN dissidents).
The FSLN in the catbird seatThe FSLN, which has lost none of its historical disposition toward conspiracy and intimidation, holds more power than it has for a long time. Through the control it exercises over key players in the judicial branch, it holds Alemán’s freedom and his political and personal future in its hands.
With the PLC bench in the National Assembly in declared opposition to Bolaños, the FSLN’s 38 votes can swing the results of any legislative vote. This allows it either to cut deals with the executive branch over legislation Bolaños wants passed or with its PLC counterparts over any initiative to oppose Bolaños, as demonstrated in the election of nine new Supreme Court justices in June.
The FSLN’s continuing control over the country’s most organized and/or belligerent sectors gives it another powerful bargaining chip: the option of keeping them on a short leash to continue the country’s demobilized state or unleashing them to make good on its capacity for social destabilization.
The only power it doesn’t control and will never win over is the one most responsible for keeping the Bolaños government on its feet: the power of the empire. Bolaños still has the support of the international community in general, but his real lifeboat is the US government.
US opposition notwithstanding, the FSLN has been playing politics in Nicaragua’s current “transition”—the one dragging us from hyper-corruption to hyper-technocracy—with the same adeptness it employed in the transition from war to peace in the nineties and the same expertise it used to cover over the economic “dirty tricks” it has played since leaving government. Among its latest public political aims is to redefine the state through a “national agreement.” The essence of this plan is to shift the power from the country’s historically strong presidency to the National Assembly.
July 11: “Montealegrized” The pro-Alemán PLC celebrated the 110th anniversary of Nicaragua’s 1893 Liberal Revolution with a gaudy and raucous convention. The focal point of the July 11 event was current Treasury Minister Eduardo Montealegre, the man visibly responsible for all the Bolaños government’s unpopular macroeconomic initiatives. He is, however, also on the board of the PLC, a party that declared itself in opposition to the government only months after its candidate took office. The most hardline pro-Alemán current, which not surpris-ingly boasts Alemán’s wife and daughters in its front line, “Montealegrized the convention”—to use the PLC spokesperson’s words—by repeatedly insisting that he be “consistent” and chose which hat to wear. They not only shouted at him during the convention but also exerted pressure beforehand through the media: chose either the party or the government; either Alemán or Bolaños. Montealegre, however, deftly sidestepped the dilemma, confirming his enormous popularity in the process.
Can Montealegre be a unifying force? For some years now, even before Enrique Bolaños became the PLC’s presidential candidate over his future treasury minister, one poll after another has been showing Montealegre as the presidential choice most attractive to the PLC grass roots. With him straddling the government and the party, both the Bolaños backers and the less rabid Alemán loyalists view Montealegre as the best and perhaps only reliable option to keep all the Liberals in a single camp and thus defeat the FSLN in the next elections. The main issue that both sides of the Liberal divide share is the recurring nightmare of another Sandinista presidency.
While it is no surprise that a unifying force is not in Ortega’s interests, Alemán is apparently also unwilling to countenance Montealegre playing such a role, because it would challenge his own authority. In yet another sign of the power that Alemán still wields within the PLC, his machinery rolled into action only ten days after the convention and Montealegre was removed from his directive post in the party. Unwilling to remove his party hat, he had it removed for him.
Vice President Rizo’s attempted “coup” Complicating things even more, José Rizo, Bolaños’ Vice President, also has no interest in Montealegre being the great Liberal unifier. Like Montealegre, he himself aspires to be both the unifier and the next President. Rizo’s tactic, however, is to distance himself from Bolaños and his circle and move closer to the Alemán side. He recently referred to Bolaños as a “prince surrounded by courtesans who tell him what he wants to hear.” He is using his vice presidential post to build his own space, one in which he hopes to make himself indispensable.
One of his more seriously failed attempts to do so came on August 5, when Bolaños was on a visit to the Dominican Republic. A week earlier, some five thousand agricultural workers (men, women and children) from numerous communities of Matagalpa and Jinotega had begun a march to Managua to demand the government’s full compliance with the Las Tunas agreements, which it signed nearly a year earlier. The marchers have been without work for two years due to the coffee crisis that has hit those two departments particularly hard, and they have been suffering grave hunger and malnutrition ever since. The most important part of the agreement for them is not temporary food handouts, but access to legalized, deeded land and permanent jobs.
During the march, dozens of children and adults fell victim to severe diarrhea and respiratory disorders. On August 5, long before they reached Managua, a government commission negotiated with the peasants, promising among other things to sell land at half the market price with 30 years to pay to 2,500 of these families that can’t even scrape together enough money to buy food. Vice President Rizo, ostensibly seeking a “solution” to the underlying crisis expressed in the march, and of course focusing the spotlight on himself while the President was away, called the Catholic bishops and leaders of both the PLC and the FSLN to a “national dialogue” that same day. But FSLN leader Daniel Ortega leaked the information to Bolaños by phone, and the President warned Rizo that it would be wise to give up his plan, which some media labeled an attempted coup.
PLC seeking a “governance” agreement with the FSLN
PLC party secretary René Herrera, who strongly opposed subjecting Monte-alegre to the kind of erosive dilemma favored by even harder-line Alemán supporters, did not disguise his anger while presenting the PLC’s proposal in the convention. Once again, the PLC is demanding what it euphemistically calls a “governance agreement,” which it proposes to hammer out with “the representative parties”—yet another euphemism, meaning the FSLN. The PLC has been flirting with it for months knowing that Alemán’s future is in its hands and the two sides had begun negotiating what both are calling “the redefinition of the state” even before the formal proposal was presented to the convention.
The convention’s capping event was a taped speech from Alemán sent “from the solitude of my forced retirement,” his way of referring to his house arrest. The former President lashed out at “the traitors,” implicitly criticizing Montealegre for his lack of definition and lamenting the “national disaster.” One of the slogans heard throughout the afternoon was: “Arnoldo, with power or without it, you’re still king!”
June 13: On the defensiveThe celebration by pro-Bolaños Liberals two days later was much duller. The President himself was out of the country—commemorating the same historic event with a group of Nicaraguans in Miami. The most applauded leader at the Managua gathering, who appeared to be leading the new Liberal Unity Movement, was Health Minister José Antonio Alvarado. Can Alvarado, although unarguably popular and respected for his integrity, compete with Montealegre? It fell to Alvarado, successively head of three different ministries during the Alemán government and the first to abandon his ship, to lay out the proposal of a Liberalism without Alemán, which he defined as “a more socially just, economically strong and politically stable Nicaragua.”
The leaders of the Liberal wing in government offered very defensive speeches, either responding to or disqualifying the pro-Alemán proposals. They accepted the idea of a Constituent Assembly if and only if it came at the end of Bolaños’ term. They refrained from flirting with the FSLN, however, and blamed the pro-Alemán wing for “paving the way for the FSLN’s return to power.”
A Catholicized July 19
As has been happening for over half a decade now, virtually the entire July 19 celebration of the overthrow of the Somoza dicatatorship centered on the cult of Daniel Ortega, who always uses the royal “we” in his speeches. And as was inaugurated last year, this centrality has spread to include his family (with the exception of stepdaughter Zoilamérica Narváez, of course). This year his speech was preceded by a long, repetitive, abstruse ideological-literary dissertation by his wife Rosario Murillo, followed by four songs—among them Schubert’s Ave María—intoned by one of his sons, the tenor Laureano Ortega.
The celebration’s main dish came as a complete surprise and was offered in two servings: one at the start and the other at the end of the event. Catholicism reigned in the act, setting aside the principles and values of laity and/or ecumenism, which are in such scarce supply but so necessary for Nicaraguan society’s increasingly multi-sected religiosity.
Tomás Borge and other Sandinista leaders present on the stage wore t-shirts commemorating the 24th anniversary of the revolution that bore Christ’s face in profile. Among the special guests who spoke during the act was Cardinal Obando’s personal envoy, Father Eddy Montenegro, vicar of the archdiocese of Managua, who offered a prayer to the multitude, followed by that same multitude’s chanting of “Long live the Catholic Church,” prompted by the master of ceremonies.
Vicar Montenegro prayed, “We ask you, O Lord, that we Nicaraguans, reconciled and embracing each other in peace, may build the future, forgetting the past and looking toward the present. You who are the Lord of history, we ask you to bless Nicaragua and bless Nicaraguans. So be it.”
Montenegro was the first ecclesiastical authority to be publicly linked to the case with which the Bolaños government opened its war on corruption: the now virtually forgotten Channel 6 embezzlement scam. Months later, he appeared as a prime figure in another corruption case: that of the Supreme Electoral Council, also sent to a premature and unsung grave.
The meeting between old neighbors from La LibertadThe centerpiece of Ortega’s speech was his ad lib presentation of the cordial hour-plus meeting he had held the previous day with Cardinal Archbishop of Managua, Miguel Obando y Bravo, when Ortega went personally to invite him to the July 19 act.
Ortega, with total control over the scene born of the security provided by his equally total control over the national crisis, began by recalling the happy coincidence that both he and Obando had been born in the town of La Libertad, Chontales. He followed that by evoking the admiration he had felt for Obando from a very young age, the pride of knowing he was the rector of a seminary in El Salvador, the visits Obando paid him when he was a political prisoner, the pivotal political role Obando had played on so many occasions…
Ortega then organized his entire message around the many concerns he shared with the Cardinal, such as the needs of the poor, the lack of governa-bility into which the country is falling, the risks implied in the free trade agreements being negotiated, the unnecessary sending of Nicaraguan troops to Iraq, etcetera, etcetera. It was into this context that Ortega wove what became the day’s major news item: asking the Catholic hierarchy to “forgive” the “not good relations” the Sandinista government maintained with it during the eighties and the errors it committed with respect to the Catholic Church at the time. He claimed that the Church “knows perfectly well” that those errors were triggered by “our love for Nicaragua, our profound love for the defense of our country’s sovereignty, our profound love for the poor, the peasants and the dispossessed.”
He also announced that until the International Monetary Fund (IMF) lets Nicaragua into the Highly Indebted Poor Countries (HIPC) initiative, thus pardoning a substantial part of Nicaragua’s unpayable foreign debt, FSLN legislators will continue opposing privatization of the HIDROGESA hydroelectric system and the state’s remaining 49% holdings in the telecommunications company, plus any other imposed IMF condition. The selling off of both public utilities, which President Bolaños is promoting, are conditions imposed by the IMF years ago. Ortega ended his speech by referring to the “miracle” he wishes for Nicaragua: a lasting national agreement among all Nicaraguans.
A “probable” FSLN victoryJust before the Sandinista celebration, Cardinal Obando had predicted that the FSLN would very likely win the next elections, without specifying whether he was referring to the municipal ones in 2004 and/or the presidential ones in 2006. He did say, however, that this prediction was based on the party’s visible “unity” and “discipline” and the number of Sandinistas he always found during his visits to the poorest neighborhoods. While these declarations lend themselves to a variety of interpretations, the most obvious is that it was a shot across the Liberal bow, a warning that if they don’t leave “hatred” behind and apply their own unity and discipline, they will have to live with the consequences of an FSLN electoral victory.
“Hatred” was the label that several Church hierarchs used for months to describe Bolaños’ war on corruption. While that war did not go after either the Archdiocese of Managua’s Social Promotion Commission, as it rightfully should have, or any hierarch, as was expected at one point, it has dislodged a few encrusted privileges (exonerations, special fees, concessions, extra-budgetary aid, etc.) long enjoyed by some Catholic institutions and figures.
Has the pact bumped up a notch? This ostentatious public rapprochement between Cardinal Obando and Daniel Ortega—unveiled on Sandinismo’s most symbolic date—points to negotiations between the two leaders in which Alemán is almost certainly involved somehow. Whose brainchild was this spectacular “reconciliation” and the scandal it sparked: Comandante Ortega’s, prisoner Alemán’s or the Cardinal’s? Whatever the answer, there is no ignoring that on July 19 Nicaragua witnessed the public anointing of a pact between Nicaragua’s “three caudillos,” as the country’s leading public opinion makers daringly interpreted it the following day.
Montenegro declared upon leaving the stage, “I don’t think that the Sandinista Front’s real intention is to use us, but if you are used for good, in the search for the common good, blessed be it.”
Daniel Ortega’s fifth candidacyDuring his speech, Ortega, who lost the presidency in 1990 but has never lost power, admitted he was “willing to accept the challenge” of another presidential candidacy, following three consecutive defeats. And former boxing champion Alexis Argüello, the man Ortega has been promoting as the FSLN’s vice mayoral candidate for Managua (or possibly his own running mate), virtually “proclaimed” the FSLN leader as the party’s 2006 presidential candidate. The entire celebration in the plaza was laced with electoral references promoting Ortega’s fifth consecutive candidacy.
In his speech, however, Ortega questioned the traditional notion of a powerful presidency and again raised the idea he’s been tossing around since losing the 2001 elections: switching the country’s historical political system from a presidential one to a parliamentary one. In his still very sketchy formula, power would be centered in the parliament, which would combine with “popular assemblies” of unsalaried representatives of sectoral and trade/professional associations, somewhat along the lines of the Council of State in the first years of the revolution, that would be consulted and have decision-making power.
How does the notion of a parliamentary system square with Ortega’s own presidential aspirations? Some crystal balls predict that this formula is but one of the strategies the FSLN has up its sleeve ready to whip out depending on how the country’s fragile governability evolves. The idea would be to launch a candidate other than Ortega, since the antibodies he generates would almost certainly consign him to his fourth consecutive defeat, despite the FSLN’s strong current position as a party. Assuming a victory, this figurehead would “reign but not govern” as head of state and Ortega would gamble on the FSLN also winning a parliamentary majority and naming him the real head of government, or prime minister. The power Ortega has been wielding through the legislative branch since 1998 demonstrates the attraction of this strategy.
Dilemmas for the FSLNOther crystal balls, however, show the FSLN’s electoral strategists facing a major dilemma right now: whether to channel all energies into next year’s municipal elections or save them for the presidential race. An important Sandinista victory in the municipal elections could have a boomerang effect on the presidential elections, as happened in 2000. In those elections, the FSLN obtained significant municipal victories by winning Managua and virtually all other major departmental capitals, so is currently governing 60% of the nation’s population. But that victory freaked many people out, rekindling anti-Sandinista fears that smoldered right through to the following year’s presidential elections and contributed to Ortega’s defeat. So what now: put the presidential election at risk or sacrifice the municipal elections to improve the already good chances of winning the presidency?
Daniel Ortega’s high cardThe high card Daniel is betting on today—and at several tables at once, showing just how powerful it is—is the political and personal future of Arnoldo Alemán, his pact partner. There is a snowballing conviction that Alemán will go free, that he will not be convicted of the crime of money laundering for which he was indicted or any of the other numerous crimes he has been accused of in the “stash” case, made public exactly a year ago.
This conviction is fed by a number of elements. There is the privileged treatment he has been receiving since his indictment and house arrest thanks to Juana Méndez, the pro-Ortega judge on his case; the power he still wields over his party’s structures; the social impunity expressed in the open affection, backing and support offered him by representatives of all state branches; the space the media grants to him, his case and his cause; and the population’s justifiable disenchantment with the meaning, goals and results of Bolaños’ anti-corruption struggle, which has thus far not recovered a cent of what was stolen and has only jailed two perpetrators—one behind bars with privileged luxuries and the other poolside.
Divine punishment by a caudillo God All of these “reasons” were capped by another death in the Alemán family—his elder brother who died of a heart attack on July 26.
In the space of only nine months, Arnoldo Alemán has lost his eldest son in a tragic accident, his only sister to cancer and now his older brother. He has also lost his legislative post and the impunity that went along with it, which led to a court indictment and subsequent house arrest. With much of the population convinced that God is a celestial caudillo who controls the destiny of human beings by tossing about rewards and punishments, many are now saying, “God has already punished him, leave the man alone; he has suffered enough.” The prevailing opinion is that this vindictive God took one look at the irregularities and vices of the Nicaraguan courts and decided to take matters into his own hands, making Alemán pay for his sins with the consecutive deaths of three of his most beloved family members.
The space the media dedicated to Agustín Alemán’s funeral—allowed by the family because he would have wanted it that way and because they recognize the political returns of pain and tears—nourish such religious sentiments, which are one of the most powerful brakes on the construction of citizenship in today’s Nicaragua.
A slight turning of the screwsWhile religious fatalists feel Alemán has been punished enough, a similarly large sector of public opinion retains an ethical perspective, aware of the enormous economic and moral damage his impunity has wreaked. This sector has repeatedly spoken out in polls and other forums in favor of suspending his house arrest on a luxurious hacienda and packing him off to the Modelo prison where other mere mortals serve their time. Part of this opinion results from repeated news articles about the difficulty of maintaining security conditions in such a sprawling ranch so far from Managua and the exorbitant costs of trying to do so. It is estimated that well over $1,000 a day has been spent on rotating personnel, travel expenses, food and the like since his indictment last December.
In mid-July, the Ministry of Government ordered that responsibility for Alemán’s custody be passed from the National Police to the National Penitentiary System. It also proposed installing video cameras both outside the hacienda and within to control the prisoner’s visits and the irregularities they often imply, such as smuggling in cell phones, liquor and even people hidden in car trunks. In June alone, the Ministry of Government detected up to 200 visitors. While the cameras would have also reduced the enormous expense of guarding the prisoner, Judge Méndez did not authorize their installation. She did, however, establish some new security measures, among them prohibiting visitors who bring liquor or have it on their breath from getting in to see Alemán.
When will Daniel cash in his high card? Will Alemán really go free? And if so, what legalism will spring the prisoner and wipe his record clean? Will it be some obscure mechanism within Nicaraguan jurisprudence or will it be his claim that he still enjoys parliamentary immunity as a member of the Central American Parliament, an issue the members of that less than august body are deliberating as this issue of envío goes to press? The where, when, how and even whether have yet to be revealed, but the one point on which there is little doubt is that Daniel Ortega holds the key.
Some analysts believe he will not turn it until after the municipal elections, and even then only on two conditions: 1) that Alemán not run in the presidential elections and remain a silent onlooker until they are over; and 2) that he also keep Montealegre off the presidential ballot. Achieving the first one removes some of the obscenity from the legal maneuvers, while the second reflects Ortega’s fear that Montealegre could reunite Libralism’s two wings, frustrating the FSLN’s strategy and ultimately its victory.
Other analysts wager that Ortega will turn the key at the first good opportunity. In this scenario, there is only one condition: that Alemán keep Montelagre out of the race. This implies that the two main candidates will again be Alemán and Ortega and that Ortega is confident of beating Alemán this time because his caudillo opponent is even more sullied than he. In this wonderland called Nicaragua, a country of such volatile political moments and a population with such a fleeting political memory, this could happen at any time, even while this issue of envío is at the printer. But so could any other scenario.
Where is Ortega’s nemesis in all these scenarios? While most analysts agree that Ortega holds the key, other crystal ball gazers are making more allowances for President Bolaños’ greatest ally and Ortega’s greatest nemesis: the US government. Convinced that Bolaños’ new Liberal current will be incapable of attracting the PLC to its proposal, the US government could accept Alemán’s freedom despite all the triumphal propaganda it has given to Bolaños’ anti-corruption efforts. It would have to find a very convincing legal spin, however, to control the serious political damage such an outcome would do to the Bush administration’s image in the rest of Latin America, where even the kid-gloves treatment Alemán is receiving is more punitive than any other corrupt President has had to contend with. Failure to take Alemán through the courts would also weaken the anti-terrorist message Washington is peddling around the world, which defines corruption and impunity as links in the chain. The US would also have to find a graceful way to remove the embargo on the allegedly ill-gotten gains that Alemán has transferred to the United States in the form of bank accounts and real estate.
In exchange for all this inconvenience and to make its gesture meaningful, the US would surely impose the condition that Alemán give up his political control and ensure Montealegre’s place on the PLC presidential ticket. The United States believes in him and views him as the candidate best able to unify the Liberals. Every bit as important, Montealegre would retain Bolaños’ macroeconomic project, continue favoring the financial sector and guarantee Nicaragua’s full inclusion in both the Central American free trade agreement currently being negotiated and the project to ensure globalization under US hegemony. Perhaps even more important than all of these elements rolled together, Montealegre could prevent an electoral victory by Daniel Ortega and the FSLN, a possibility that gives the Bush administration the same nightmares it does the Nicaraguan Right.
On what side will the sun finally rise? Nicaragua is mired in a series of debilitating problems: an economic crisis that will be with us for a long time; the democratic formalities of its “pacted” institutions and the ambiguous and socially insensitive elitism of President Bolaños and his team of technocrats and businessmen who have no idea how to relate to the wounds of the real country, as opposed to the theoretical one they constantly refer to. The country’s households are mired in ignorance, poor health, the daily struggle to survive, political and interpersonal conflicts that are most often “settled” by violence and a machismo that victimizes men as well as women by blocking the way to innumerable possibilities of transformation.
There are no quick or easy solutions to these problems. It is hard even to imagine what they might be. What is evident is that such solutions will not be provided by state reforms or even the best Constituent Assembly in the world, and they certainly will not come from Nicaragua’s abundance of crafty and excessively self-serving politicians. They will only come from the passionate and constant work of those who continue to place knowledge, solidarity and “effective love” over money, social position or political power.