Envío Digital
Central American University - UCA  
  Number 270 | Enero 2004



The Face of Nicaragua in 2004: Obvious Forecasts

While Nicaragua’s deepest, most structural “wrinkles”— abysmal health and education deficiencies, malnutrition, deepseated machismo, social tolerance of corruption, impunity, a non-secular state and gross salary inequities—are untouched, the government, boasting of its economic achievements, claims that the country has already had a “facelift.”

Nitlápan-Envío team

Self-satisfied and complacent rhetoric was the daily bread from the government in December and January, once it had weathered the new Ortega-Alemán deals that had the country shuddering on the brink of yet another political crisis throughout most of November. This official satisfaction rests on two pillars that were actually designed and erected outside of Nicaragua: on December 17, the Central American countries signed a free trade agreement (CAFTA) with the United States and six days later the World Bank and International Monetary Fund allowed Nicaragua to pass to the culmination point of the initiative for highly indebted poor countries (HIPC), writing off more than 80% of its foreign debt that falls within the initiative. “This is the best economic news in the past 25 years,” gloated President Bolaños, while Mario Arana, one of the ministers responsible for negotiating CAFTA, added, “Nicara-gua’s face will change following the signing of the free trade agreement and entry into HIPC.”

Can predictions really be made about Nicaragua’s new face in the year ahead? Any projective analysis in a country such as ours can be a colossal waste of time given the velocity with which political entropy takes over, threatening all potential analyzers with the possibility of ending up with egg on their face. Despite this, we’ll usher in 2004 by making some projections—but only the most obvious ones based on the country’s old, familiar face.

Electoral polarization

We can expect more political tensions in 2004, as it has turned out to be an electoral year after all despite one last, post-Christmas attempt by President Bolaños and FSLN chief Daniel Ortega, this time with Cardinal Obando’s support, to postpone the municipal elections until next year’s general ones. The three men also included former President Arnoldo Alemán in the negotiations, thus openly legitimating a convicted felon, but this anti-democratic plan hatched by the country’s lead caudillos ran aground again.

The municipal elections, now scheduled for Sunday, November 7, will inevitably be marked by the tattered credibility of the Supreme Electoral Council magistrates, who are in their posts only thanks to the pact and whose waste and corruption has led to a shortage of finances to guarantee the electoral process. Although there was discussion last year of serious reforms to the exclusionary Electoral Law—also a product of the pact—that governed the past two elections, only very minor changes are foreseeable.

While the interior of the country is not quite as politically polarized as the capital, the competition unleashed by the municipal elections, the fight over candidacies and the campaign to win votes, not to mention the access to extraordinary funds, will inevitably intensify local divisions. It will also limit the space available for autonomous social mobilization, tolerance and the citizenry’s slow but much-needed process of learning to think for itself.

Freedom for Alemán

To the nation’s shame, much of the political tension will continue to revolve around former President Arnoldo Alemán. Though he was convicted for money laundering on December 7, 2003, and the Managua appeals court has already upheld his 20-year sentence, currently being served in the comfort of his hacienda, Constitutionalist Liberal Party (PLC) loyalists continue exploring ways to free their maximum leader.

A parole? While liberating him from serving out his sentence, this would suggest that Alemán is guilty and would not erase his record, which would suit neither his image nor his political future, if he plans to remain active. Amnesty? This is a better formula because it wipes the slate clean, but amnesty is only applicable to political crimes, while politician Alemán was convicted of money laundering and is still under indictment for other common crimes such as embezzlement and conspiracy to commit fraud.

Well then, what about what Nicaraguan politicians like to call the “authentic interpretation” of Law 285 on money laundering? This seems the most accessible and most attractive alternative. Although it would not absolve him from this crime, it would overturn his conviction on technical grounds, since some strictly interpret the law as referring only to money connected to drug trafficking, and the former President has yet to be linked to the drug mafia.

Alemán’s fate has been the strongest bargaining chip played by the country’s power groups in all of the political horse trading they have engaged in for over a year. Following his almost certain freedom this year, new transactions will spring up according to his behavior and the decisions he takes in a political setting in which so many regrettably continue to legitimize his corrupt leadership.

US meddling

Safe and smug, the government will continue down its path with US backing. For the past two years, President Bolaños’ political weakness—largely resulting from Alemán’s continuing control of the PLC, on whose ticket he ran, leaving him no access to the party machinery and only a handful of loyal legislators—forced him to seek stability through deals with his FSLN adversaries. But the Bush government’s blind anti-Sandinista position has now transformed its already explicit backing into open meddling, starting with Secretary of State Colin Powell’s visit late last year. That ratcheted up into obscene interference in January, when US Ambassador Barbara Moore, in openly publicized meetings in her house with both pro-Bolaños and pro-Alemán Liberals, “got them to agree” to a new National Assembly leadership that is to all intents and purposes under Alemán’s control.

This blunt “diplomacy”—the second time in only a few months that the US Embassy in Managua offended national sensibilities and unmasked the country’s “new face”—permits us to forecast all manner of crude interventions to patch up the deeply divided Liberal movement so it can effectively block any Sandinista electoral victory. While such open meddling to curb new tensions among the Liberals is a sure bet, the ability of the United States to neutralize the underlying contradictions and corral the personal ambitions that have prevented the Liberals from mounting their own effective anti-Sandinista operation gets long odds.

The forgotten corruption

The war against corruption is not and never was a US political priority for Nicaragua. Any moves that went by that name were molded precisely to US interests, which Bolaños shares, without ever touching the structural underpinnings of corruption or of Nicaragua’s historically institutionalized impunity.

Evidence of this abounds. Surely because he is “collaborating” with the United States, Byron Jerez, Alemán’s cohort in crime, is back home on bail after over a year in prison. He has been declared innocent in two of the eight cases against him and his appeal against the eight-year sentence he already received will likely succeed. His wife and daughter, also implicated in his crimes, have been definitively exonerated and he is now recovering and safeguarding his frozen assets and giving declarations to the media with the air of someone who knows he can’t be touched.

Alemán, too, will most likely go free with the US government’s silent approval, an option ultimately argued on the grounds that it will help stabilize the “governability” of a country now considered irredeemable. And after these two, we can be sure that all the others who joined Alemán in pillaging the state will either be ignored or exonerated. While the majority have fled the country, a number of them are still part of the political scene, now firm Bolaños allies, paying for their freedom by voting for his legislative initiatives.

The President’s achievements

The US government’s strategic priorities here and elsewhere have always been economic and commercial. The “war against terrorism,” like the one against corruption, is being waged to eliminate competitors, of which the most colossal one visible on the horizon is China.

President Bolaños will move more surely in 2004, now that his government has totally adopted the North’s priorities. Arguments will be put forth for this presidential smugness. Nicaragua is now in the HIPC initiative, which makes us a “solvent” country able to pay its still considerable debts. For those who find it worthy of applause, Nicaragua has now signed the free trade agreement with the United States (CAFTA), which turns us into an open marketplace for US imports and investments, the latter particularly in the form of offshore sweatshops known as maquilas. And Nicaragua now has a National Development Plan (NDP), which will ensure the infrastructure still needed for the “free” trade between the United States and Nicaragua to function effectively.

It is on the basis of these three great acronyms—HIPC, CAFTA and NDP—that President Bolaños and his government officials are promising development. Over the course of this year they will try to base their legitimacy and credibility on these achievements, building their electoral campaign propaganda around them.

The legislative agenda

It is far from clear whether the funds saved with the HIPC debt write-off will be applied to programs that help pull the majority of Nicaraguans out of the depths of their poverty. In announcing Nicaragua’s arrival at the culmination point, the IMF and World Bank immediately reminded the government of its commitment to do so. But these same institutions have endorsed the huge amounts—both declared and hidden—that were budgeted to pay off the domestic debt with the bankers, who already enjoy tax exonerations and have made out extremely well with the corruption in past years.

The international financial institutions will also continue pressuring for approval of a series of modernizing laws that the government must guarantee if it is to keep its international record clean. Although the laws are needed, they are laced with all the mechanisms demanded of Nicaragua to fine-tune it to the requirements of a subjugating globalization that considers neither our reality nor our interests as a nation. The executive branch needs to push these laws through the National Assembly this year, but to do so it needs the support of a Liberal bench whose members are still unwaveringly loyal to Alemán. With the new parliamentary leadership again controlled by Alemán, fewer legislators previously loyal to Bolaños will be prepared to continue withstanding the pressure to abandon him. And with the US leaning on Bolaños to get out of bed with Ortega’s FSLN forces, executive-legislative tensions can be expected to accompany the legislative agenda, bringing new twists to the political negotiations.

Three unknown quantities

Three of the most important questions that are still cloudy in the crystal ball for 2004 will be respectively cleared up in March, July and November. In March we will know the results of El Salvador’s general elections. An FMLN victory—difficult but not impossible—would help introduce a new, if not necessarily alternative, factor onto a Central American political stage dominated by the denationalizing attitudes of the current governments and their adherence to the US government’s “single thinking.”

By July we should know whether the US Congress will approve the free trade agreement as signed. Members of the Bush administration promoting the treaty are asking the Central American politicians and business leaders who would benefit to lobby US legislators to sign off on it. In his speeches, however, probable Democratic presidential candidate Senator John Kerry is labeling as “traitors” US business owners who take jobs away from their compatriots by moving their businesses abroad in search of the kind of cheap labor being dangled in front of them like bait in the CAFTA deal.

If CAFTA is ultimately signed, 2004 will usher in the start of a huge rural crisis in the region, above all here in Nicaragua, as its economy is most dependent on the agricultural sector. If that sector is devastated as predicted, it will intensify the already grinding rural poverty, triggering even greater migration into the cities and abroad.

If it is not signed, and if the last and most important unknown—the result of the presidential elections in the United States—proves to be Bush’s defeat, it will not mean fundamental changes in the rules of the game, but will at least mean a change in the players and their style. It will also mean new breathing space in the world, a chance to oxygenate starved neurons and change the behaviorally modified cerebral synapses of both governors and the governed in the North and the South.

Nicaragua’s Ugly Wrinkles

The new school year began on February 2. According to official data, 900,000 students are enrolled in both primary and secondary school, leaving no fewer than 750,000 children completely outside of the system, mainly for reasons linked to their familys’ impoverishment.

It was not sure until the last moment that public school classes would actually begin on the established date, as teachers had threatened a strike if the government did not fulfill its promise of a fair salary hike and a salary reclassification. The increase that the government finally offered was only about $20 a month. The teachers rejected the increase and continued to press for the reclassification. Through mediation by the Human Rights Defense Attorney’s Office, the strike was put off until March, to provide time for an adequate investigation of the number, location and salary status of national teachers. Nicaragua’s teachers are the worst paid in Central America, earning less than $60 a month on average. Despite that, President Bolaños, in declarations the teachers considered offensive, called them “privileged” because they only work nine months a year yet earn a salary for the full twelve months, allowing them to dedicate three months to other activities, studying and “business.” This dismissive statement comes from a man who still runs numerous agricultural enterprises, earns his sizable presidential salary with all the accompanying perks and simultaneously draws a full pension for having served as Vice President.

At the start of the school year, the government of Japan announced that it could not continue financing the school milk program in 2,000 public schools that provides 400,000 children between 3 and 12 years old with a free daily glass of milk as a nutritional complement. Collateral objectives of the program included helping reduce the school dropout rate and benefiting national milk producers. Japan financed the program for three years at a cost of US$3 million every 100 days. When the Japansese government suggested that Nicaragua generate the resources required to continue the program, the Education Ministry declared that it could not assume the cost and announced that it would ask other donors to do so. It later proposed turning to cheese and soy. The end of this program demonstrated the country’s dependence on international charity to resolve even its most basic problems, while the current government attends to its priorities of paying national bankers, providing the infrastructure and other conditions for foreign investment in maquilas and ensuring the mega-salaries of the top-level officials administering this model.

Food Security
UN Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) representative Loy Van Crowder announced at an FAO event held in Panama in January that Nicaragua will be unable to fulfill the Millennium Summit agreement to reduce its population’s hunger and malnutrition by 50% by 2015. “It is unlikely that Nicaragua will reach this target because the political will does not exist.” This lack of will is illustrated in FAO data: 80% of Nicaraguan food is produced by small and medium producers who have no access to either credits or technology and receive no support from the government, while 29% of Nicaragua’s population is malnourished, with children affected the most. According to the FAO official,Nicaragua’s National Development Plan contains no food security plan. “There is enough food in Nicaragua,” he explained; “the problem is that people don’t have access to it. Nicaragua can produce food, but continues to import it. There is sizable investment in agriculture, but the question is whether this investment is getting to the people who really need it.”

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The Face of Nicaragua in 2004: Obvious Forecasts

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