Nicaragua’s “New Era” Does an About-Face
The fight against corruption was the course plotted for the first year of President Bolaños’ “New Era.”
But that route has now come to a dead end
and Bolaños has made a complete u-turn.
First stop on the new road: CAFTA.
Throughout 2002, the first year of his five-year term as President, Enrique Bolaños dedicated most of his efforts to “cleaning house” in the executive branch. The hyper-corruption institutionalized by his predecessor, Arnoldo Alemán, had so discredited Nicaragua with the international community that something drastic had to be done to reinspire confidence, and Bolaños’ personal and professional talent facilitated the task. Such a crusade was also the best way to mobilize hope domestically while the President’s team attempted to impose order on the economic and financial calamity caused by Alemán’s excesses, since it prevented him from making good on his campaign promises to improve the economy for the population. For both internal and international reasons, then, the war on corruption became the guidepost for the Bolaños government’s first year.
It appeared to be a strategic proposition, aimed at shaking the two most solid pillars of the country’s political culture: impunity and the conception of the state as booty. Lawyer Alberto Novoa, one of the pioneers in that effort, went so far as to say in July 2002 that Nicaragua was experiencing something unprecedented in the continent: “a legal insurrection.” Today, as we approach the end of the second year, that proposition has been first sullied and now finally abandoned. Its course has been so ambiguous it has lost all credibility. Having reached the end of the line, Bolaños has made an about-face and is now headed down another road, this time an economic one. Or more exactly, he has opted for the geo-economic road that the United States has designed for the region: the US-Central American free trade agreement known as CAFTA.
The strategy ended up being only a tacticWhat remains of the fight against corruption? There are unquestionably greater controls within the state and there is an attempt to avoid the squandering of resources that characterized the previous administration. That being said, the mega-salaries received by the President and his team—including top officials in the Attorney General’s Office, which was the only institution to really go on the attack—are so scandalous that the citizenry perceives them as one of the most offensive forms of corruption.
Almost all bureaucratic procedures have been tightened up (and unfortunately often ineffectually multiplied) and some of the wellsprings that fed the corruption have been capped. In this new atmosphere of state controls, functionaries now think twice for fear of getting caught with their hand in the cookie jar. That fear, far more than any changes in the political culture, any adoption of a new morality or even any strengthening of institutions, explains some of the ground gained in the war on corruption.
While this is something, it is hardly enough. The panorama is bleak with respect to punishment, to making an example out of transgressors, to the just revenge demanded by the population, to the recovery of the ill-gotten goods or to any signs that impunity is coming to an end. Only Alemán and his sidekick in crime Byron Jerez are still in prison pending trial; all the others have either been let out or fled the country before they could be apprehended. Most people believe it is only a matter of time before Alemán and Jerez are released on some excuse as well. No other top official implicated in the main cases so far has been touched, suggesting that Bolaños’ strategy has evaporated in political negotiations, ending up nothing more than a passing tactic.
What Jerez knowsByron Jerez, director of the tax division under the Alemán government and trusted executor of Alemán’s schemes to embezzle a fortune in public resources, has been detained for seven separate indictments on corruption charges, only two of which have come to trial. In the first trial, he was sentenced to eight years in prison. In the second, for the case known as the ENITEL “check scam,” where even more evidence existed, he was declared innocent on October 1 by a jury whose president was a known follower of Daniel Ortega and a former alternate legislator on the FSLN bench. The three others accused in that same case were also acquitted.
Jerez’s absolution in the just-heard case was a devastating sign, the most resounding evidence to date that the anti-corruption fight has ended up a swindle in which judges, prosecuting attorneys, defense attorneys, juries and of course political leaders of all stripes have played a part.
Byron Jerez has never had any political leadership in Alemán’s Constitutionalist Liberal Party (PLC), which became clear when he was jailed. What he does have is valuable economic and financial information on Alemán and other national political figures. He is a living archive of the corruption networks in public institutions and private enterprise in Nicaragua, and quite likely in several other countries as well. With the anti-corruption fight called off, there is good reason to wonder about his final destiny. Which privilege might he be offered in exchange for sharing his information? Conditional liberty? Release on bail and agreed-to flight? A reduced sentence…? Does the pending trial against him in the United States and the embargoing of his possessions there mean that the FBI is in on the negotiations?
What Alemán signifiesWill Jerez walk and only Alemán remain in prison? As the biggest fish of the hyper-corruption, Alemán plays a dual role—both symbolic and political. Unlike Jerez, Alemán does have real leadership in the PLC, over both the rank-and-file and the directive structures across the country. Although this leadership has been eroding since he was arrested ten months ago, he still conserves much of it. He also has leadership in several branches of state. He controls most of the Liberal majority in the legislative branch and a good number of the top people in the judicial and electoral branches and the Comptroller General’s Office, all of whom have decision-making power over very important issues and are dedicating varying amounts of their energy and time to securing his release.
It only took a few weeks to see that the objective of transferring Alemán from his sumptuous house arrest to a comfortably outfitted cell in the police prison, where there are greater controls, was more political than judicial: it was to intensify the crisis in the PLC. Doing so suits Bolaños just fine, since he is calculating that all the Liberals who are now leaving or being purged from the PLC will switch to the Grand Liberal Unity (GUL) alliance promoted from the presidency and still in formation. Deepening the PLC crisis is also to Daniel Ortega’s liking, since he is calculating that the fiercer the divisions between Liberals, the more likely an FSLN electoral victory. Both calculations are too tainted with voluntarism to be reliable.
The family in actionThere are more controls over visits to Alemán’s prison cell than were possible when he was a poolside prisoner on his hacienda. The fact that he no longer has constant access to a telephone and a computer and cannot hold collective meetings means a loss of his ability to pull all the strings that need pulling in the PLC at any given moment. And this has triggered a debacle in the party, the most visible expression of which is the “take-over” instigated by his wife and two daughters. These “three Marías”—wife María Fernanda and daughters María Dolores and María Alejandra—visit Alemán every day, stay with him the longest and report all the political moves now taking place outside the caudillo’s control.
They serve as the transmission belt for his messages, and have begun to participate in PLC meetings, making decisions, questioning strategies, defining party affairs and discrediting directors. Alemán has begun to place his trust entirely in them. It is a risky gamble, since only María Alejandra has any political charisma and only María Dolores has any political experience, while María Fernanda lacks both, and all three are vulnerable to the profound machismo that dominates the entire political class.
This “family-ocracy” bordered on the ridiculous in the demonstration the PLC held in Managua on September 21 to demand Alemán’s freedom. The keynote speech, presented by María Fernanda, was a shouted declaration of her love for her husband, and demonstrated the degree to which the PLC has embarked on self-destructive political sentimentalism with a single objective: to get Alemán out of prison at any cost. The most significant message of the demonstration was borne on hundreds of new red t-shirts with the slogan “Arnoldo 2006” (the year of the next presidential elections). Was it a provocation, leverage, a warning, or a simple announcement that Alemán is really thinking of running for reelection?
Only days earlier, Daniel Ortega had admitted to the same ambition. During a visit to Chile in the middle of the month, Ortega declared to that country’s El Mercurio newspaper: “If God grants me life, I have this challenge with the Nicaraguan people [to be a presidential candidate again]. I feel that our novel project is unfinished; we weren’t given the opportunity to develop our revolutionary project fully and in peace.”
The purge beginsThe PLC claimed that 100,000 people attended the demonstration, which is highly unlikely based on television images of the act. A more reasonable estimate would be about 12,000, which while impressive for a politician accused of stealing well over $100 million from the people, is far lower than the expectations created. That plus the disproportionate prominence of Alemán’s wife finally detonated a crisis that had been mounting in the upper echelons of the PLC since Alemán was moved to the police prison.
Within a few days, Alemán announced from his cell that he had withdrawn his support of five members of the PLC’s national executive board, who immediately resigned their posts. He also ordered an extraordinary convention to elect new authorities and circulated a list of those to be “elected”—all among his hard-line supporters—and those to be decapitated—whom he suspects of disloyalty or trying to outshine him. The first in line for the guillotine was Treasury Minister Eduardo Montealegre, an aspiring presidential candidate and the US favorite for the job.
Of all those pushed out, the biggest surprise was PLC general secretary René Herrera, who over the past decade has acted as Alemán’s equivalent of Vladimiro Montesinos (the repressive schemer behind Peru’s former President Fujimori). A sagacious and cunning politician, Herrera has served as the liaison between Alemán and Ortega from the machinations that culminated in the 1999 pact up to the post-pact machinations still in place.
Looking through a keyholeHerrera distinguishes between “leadership” and “management” to explain the crisis in the PLC that led to his own purge. Although he recognizes that Alemán is the only real Liberal leader, he does not think that any leader can adequately manage a party when he is “looking at reality through the keyhole,” as Alemán is now limited to doing. For that reason, he has to pass the baton. “He refuses to do it because he’s not convinced that he will be detained for very long,” says Herrera, who attributes what happened to him and the other four directors to a handful of people who are reporting malicious and one-sided information to Alemán.
In his declarations, Herrera unabashedly admitted that he had been negotiating Alemán’s freedom with the FSLN, that he had a sure-fire strategy to get him out—although it was perhaps not fast enough for the three Marías’ liking—and that the US government was participating in the negotiations. It was yet more evidence that the anti-corruption course has been rerouted. The fact that Herrera’s “strategy” is not beneficial to the nation is of no importance; it is just a new political move being decided among the eternal untouchable powers.
Crossing a bridge to what future? The guideposts for Nicaragua’s new course have been put up by the United States. US Ambassador to Nicaragua Barbara Moore openly admits to “working” for Liberal unification under the Bolaños banner. Only the President and his team can guarantee Nicara-gua’s submission to Central America’s US-designed destiny: regional arms control, regional anti-terrorist laws and opening to American investments. In the end, it amounts to the creation of a “third stable border” for the United States in the continent. Once that is accomplished comes the real goal: that “great border” that the United States envisions for itself through the Free Trade Area of the Americas (FTAA).
The signing of the Central America-US free trade agreement will change the face of the region almost overnight. No other country of the isthmus is putting up less resistance than Nicaragua, as US Foreign Commerce Secretary Robert Zoellick recognized when he visited the region in early October to strongarm Costa Rica for refusing to sell off its telecommunications company and congratulate Nicaragua for its enthusiastic support of CAFTA.
President Bolaños declared that the signing of CAFTA will be “the most transcendental step that Nicaragua and Central America have taken since independence.” His government is festively announcing the free trade agreement as “a bridge to the future.” With the anti-corruption fight gone up in smoke, crossing this bridge, albeit barefoot and ragged, will take us inexorably down the government’s new path.