Envío Digital
Central American University - UCA  
  Number 266 | Septiembre 2003



The Compass Needle Points North

Wallowing in a sea of incoherencies and political instability, President Bolaños and his team are charting the only clear course on the nation’s compass. While the rest of the country is far from convinced, they feel strong and sure, because the needle is pointing to the North.

Nitlápan-Envío team

The word guaca is a hidden treasure, a stash. But it also means
the burial ground of our pre-Colombian ancestors. Over a year ago, the enormous treasure of public money that former President Alemán had stashed away while in office was dug up. Because Alemán did not rein in his greed for power even after he was found out, he exceeded the bounds even of permissive Nicaragua. Despite his swaggering confidence that it could never happen to him, he was removed from his post as head of the National Assembly, stripped of his parliamentary immunity, arrested and finally indicted on December 22. Between then and last month he was confined to house arrest awaiting trial on numerous counts of corruption.

Despite that whole chain of reverses and the passage of so many months, the guaca remained just a stash, not yet assuming its meaning as a sepulture. But burial time seems to have come.

Three shovelfuls of dirt

“Arnoldo Alemán is now a political cadaver,” crowed President Enrique Bolaños. Three consecutive shovelfuls of dirt thrown on the prisoner right after envío was sent off to the printer last month would appear to justify that triumphal statement, at least for the foreseeable future.

The first. On August 8, Judge Juana Méndez ordered that Alemán be transferred from house arrest to a National Police Criminal Investigation Division (DIC) cell. Four days later, he was duly moved from his luxurious hacienda called El Chile to a jail called El Chipote.

The second. Alemán had no more than settled in that evening, when the Central American Court of Justice rejected a suit he had filed against the Nicaraguan state demanding his freedom on the grounds that his Central American Parliament seat still guaranteed him immunity.

The third. And on that very same day, August 12, Nicaragua learned that in the United States a civil suit had been filed against him for money laundering.

The first of these three moves hobbled the daily conduction of Alemán’s political strategy. The second devastated his judicial strategy. And the third did further damage to both, not to mention virtually annulling his electoral strategy.

The judicial and the political

Any minimally informed Nicaraguan understood that the order to transfer Alemán to a real jail was not the “exclusive decision of the judicial authority,” as President Bolaños tried to paint it. Nor was it, as the minister of government portrayed it, a rectification by Judge Méndez, having supposedly finally listened to the criticisms being made of her illegal decision to grant Alemán the privilege of a poolside prison for nearly eight months. Anyone in Nicaragua knows that this case is as political as it is judicial, that decisions regarding Alemán’s destiny have as much to do with agreements of political convenience among the country’s main forces as with any crime committed. And all suspect that, even having stolen what Alemán stole, what finally led to his indictment was his obsessive determination to continue leading the show, confront Bolaños and wager on his own reelection. Had he been a bit less greedily obsessed with power, Alemán would probably be enjoying exile in the lap of luxury today.

The threads and the entanglement

For eight months, Alemán remained fully active in national political life from the comfy prison of his hacienda. Visits, communications, calls, meetings, decisions, tactics and strategies: all the threads of his Constitutionalist Liberal Party (PLC) structures, all the votes of the PLC bench in the National Assembly remained in his hands. This situation was intolerable for Bolaños’ political strategy, which aimed to extirpate Alemán’s influence from Liberalism so its anti-Sandinista role could be reorganized under more modern leadership.

In the DIC jail, which is not exactly cut to his size and where control over visits and communications is more rigorous, Alemán has begun to lose his hold on some of the threads. This has been evident in the morass of disputes among PLC leaders, divided and subdivided by ambitions, loyalties, promises, leadership, candidacies, high-paying posts, pending retributions and any number of other etceteras.
Around whom will the PLC regroup? Will the pro-Bolaños Liberals be allowed back into the fold of an Alemán-free PLC? Or will the PLC go down with its caudillo founder, giving rise to the new Liberalism Bolaños is promoting, with its grandiose name and doltish-sounding acronym—Grand Liberal Unity (GUL)? Will Alemán’s followers finally give up trying to resolve their maximum leader’s legal situation in all negotiations with the Bolaños group? Will Eduardo Monte-alegre, “golden boy” of the North and the most popular Liberal according to recent polls, have what it takes to unify all these forces and all their interests? How will the divisions and rapprochements be reflected in the elections for next year’s National Assembly leadership? What role will Vice President Rizo play as things unfold, having already publicly undermined Bolaños’ triumphalism by saying “There are no political cadavers in politics”? How much weight will Bolaños’ arrogance have in either unifying or further dividing Liberalism? The answers are written in the swings of the compass needle as it seeks true North.

Streets and ballot boxes

Following Alemán’s transfer, PLC leaders put all grassroots supporters on “red alert,” threatening hunger strikes, the closing of municipal government offices and sit-ins. Liberal activists had previously promised Alemán that they would “burn down Nicaragua” to impede his move while the enraged base of the Nicaraguan Resistance (the party formed out of the former “contras”) had threatened to take up arms again. All these threats boiled down to a few isolated actions, leaving it clear that the prisoner’s fate will not mobilize street protests or auger any significant instability. Nonetheless, the imprisoned caudillo still does have the clout to mobilize votes at election time. That is why the North’s charted course is to unify all Liberals under a single banner to then attract all “democratic forces”—the euphemism for the broad world of anti-Sandinistas that ranges from Bolaños backers to Alemán backers to the otherwise politically unaffiliated—to prevent the FSLN’s return to government.

The jailhouse key and its keeper

If the judicial decision to put Alemán behind bars pleases the North, it was Nicaraguan judge and proven Daniel Ortega loyalist Juana Méndez who issued it. Her move made it clearer than at any other point since Alemán’s arrest eight months earlier that Ortega is the keeper of the jailhouse key. He as good as admitted it in a press conference following a four-hour meeting with Bolaños shortly after the decision to transfer Alemán was announced. Ortega’s absolute self-assurance and Bolaños’ resignation spoke louder than words, although words were also forthcoming. Before the cameras and in Bolaños’ presence, Ortega declared that Alemán and his wife had phoned him to protest the transfer order. PLC leaders acknowledged it even more directly in the following days, indignantly complaining that “Daniel Ortega did not keep his agreement with us.”
What motive did Ortega have to give the judge the nod to act? He actually had several, just as he had several not to. As long as Alemán’s case is pending—no matter where he is held—fights will continue between the two Liberal wings and the resentments between them will be continually irritated, impeding unification. That favors the mechanical calculation of Ortega’s own electoral strategy: divided Liberals = sure FSLN victory. And it certainly does him no harm to appear before Nicaraguan society as a fair-minded and renovated leader, respectful of the new national reality. Best of all, it gives him the chance to present himself before the US government in a new light, offering up his pact partner on the “altar” of the North.

Ortega still has the key to get Alemán out should he so choose. He could let him return to the comfort of house arrest, using the convenient justification of Alemán’s chronic ailments—hypertension, diabetes, high cholesterol count, dangerous obesity, high cardiovascular risk… Or he could just as easily have Judge Méndez, who was assigned both cases involving Alemán, use any old procedural formality to overturn the charges in the two corruption suits. And then what—a new offer of exile? Would this option play well in the North? Would Alemán finally be chastened enough to accept it?

The court and the strategies

The second shovel of dirt that fell on Alemán was the sentence by the Central American Court of Justice. In the days before it was issued, both friends and adversaries were predicting a 4-3 vote in Alemán’s favor. With that issue undisputed, the debate revolved around “the day after.” What degree of representation did the court really have? Would the Nicaraguan courts have to respect the sentence? What position should Bolaños adopt? Was the sentence binding or not? Would Central American integration be affected if it is not respected? If the court defines itself as “Central America’s conscience,” wouldn’t backing corruption discredit it? Alemán’s family awaited the sentence with the celebration party ready. But an unanticipated vote by a Honduran alternate justice who appeared on stage at the very last minute shot down all plans and all speculations: the sentence went against Alemán 4 to 3.

What brought about the surprising switch in the Central American Court’s sentence? Knowing the die is cast, Alemán’s family had no reason to disguise its opinion: “It was the product of US pressure on the justices.”
Neither the legal strategy of Alemán’s lawyers nor the strategic political activism of his wife, daughters and Liberal followers—nor even the “spiritual strategy” of Estelí’s bishop, Abelardo Mata, acting in the name of the Committee for Alemán’s Human Rights—have focused on demonstrating the former president’s innocence. They have rather focused on insisting that he be treated as a political prisoner and presenting justifications for why he cannot be judged and should not be in prison. These supposed justifications included that he has dual immunity, would never jump bail, feels isolated, is seriously ill, deserves consideration as a former President, has already suffered too much with the death of three beloved family members in only nine months and even that his personal safety is in danger because people are trying to poison him.

Laundering here and there

The third shovel of dirt came directly from the North, crowning the other two. Last March, after a year of investigations in the United States, the US Attorney General’s office requested the South Florida District Court to confiscate eight certificates of deposit held by the Alemán family in US banks totaling nearly $900,000. After freezing the accounts, a federal judge opened a civil suit alleging that opening and possessing these CDs violated US anti-money laundering laws. The civil trial could lead to a criminal one.
Although the case against Alemán in Nicaragua does not coincide with the one in the United States, they are interrelated because the money allegedly being laundered in the United States resulted from the alleged embezzlement of state funds in Nicaragua. Even if Alemán is not extradited to the United States—Nicaragua’s Constitution forbids it—being judged in absentia by a US court cancels his electoral ambitions and significantly reduces his clout in Nicaraguan politics.

Where else if not northward?

The national compass is pointing ever more clearly to the North. Because it is, 115 Nicaraguan military personnel are unnecessarily risking their lives in Iraq to legitimize a war that was butchery and a post-war that is nothing more than the sowing and harvesting of more hatred and violence and the shameless US appropriation of a sovereign gov-ernment’s valuable natural resources—particularly water and petroleum. And also because it is, we will continue, destitute and disinformed, to negotiate a free trade agreement that has already been decided and whose signing will formally mortgage our future.

All the political chips will move with at least one eye on the North in the coming pre-electoral months. By what path might we recover the national creativity to find realistic and viable solutions to our own national problems? Where else can we look, other than northward, to make the independent decisions that Nicaragua needs to create national institutionality, national development, a national tomorrow?

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