Blood, Amnesty and a Paradox
The murder of journalist Carlos Guadamuz,
the unwavering PLC demand to set Alemán free
and the government’s great and growing paradox are
three unstable dynamics within the political power triangle.
How will these issues unfold?
When last December’s 12-day crisis “ended” with the sentencing of ex-President Arnoldo Alemán to 20 years imprisonment on money laundering charges, you didn’t have to be a political expert to predict that the last chapter had not yet been written. For far too many years now, Nicaragua’s perpetual crises have become intertwined.
The three sides of the fatal power triangle that had the country and its population trapped in the December crisis are still with us. One of them, the Sandinista National Liberation Front (FSLN), has since been accused of bloodletting. Another, the Constitutionalist Liberal Party (PLC), continues to mock the country with its blind determination to get Alemán freed. And the paradox characterizing the third—President Bolaños’ administration—is becoming increasingly accentuated, with his enthusiastic international backing contrasting ever more sharply with his eroded national popularity.
The blood of GuadamuzThe point-blank lunch-hour street shooting of Carlos Guadamuz, Daniel Ortega’s cellmate during the Somoza era and former director of Radio Ya, a Sandinista station, on February 10 shook the country (see “The Assassination of Carlos Guadamuz: Who Stands to Benefit?” in this issue of envío). A month later, there is justified concern about all the still unanswered questions surrounding the responsibility for that bloodletting, particularly as Guadamuz’s own son apprehended the gunslinger on the spot.
Presumably a political killing, this surprising crime broke with a style of national politics that has distinguished Nicaragua from most other Central American countries, thus greatly increasing the feeling of shock and uncertainty. Despite the country’s interminable polarization and the ongoing confrontations left over from the war, the scars of which have not yet faded from people’s lives, Nicaragua has not been characterized by political assassination. The notable freedom of expression that has been expanding and consolidating since the nineties, albeit with inevitable ambiguities, is a radiant pearl, won with enormous effort. It is an authentic and striking luxury in the region that shines even more lustrously against the threadbare vestments of such an impoverished country.
Journalist or politician? Was the man gunned down that day a journalist or a politician? Was the act dreamed up by one of the power groups to warn national journalists that the days of such luxury are numbered, that there’s no room for so much liberty any more? That was one of the most common interpretations in the hours after this flagrantly contentious media figure was killed.
Although it is impossible to separate Guadamuz the journalist from Guadamuz the politician and although the murder of any journalist anywhere will always have a political edge, the evidence that began to surface in the ensuing days fed a growing individual and collective assumption that both victim and executioner must have been politicians and that those most harmed and those most implicated all belonged to the FSLN side of the triangle. The killer himself was the first to fuel that assumption: “There are over a million Sandinistas who wanted to kill Guadamuz, and I’m one of them,” he declared only hours after the shooting.
It’s hard to imagine that we’ll ever get the full truth about Guadamuz’s killing. Is our society prepared not only to know it but also to live with its consequences? Even at this early stage in the investigation, the reactions of some FSLN leaders have offered a glimpse of the advanced state of the rot within the party structures and its ruling clique. It is a tragic verification.
Not even murder stopped the PLC from its appointed roundsOn another side of the triangle, it was evident even on the day of the murder itself just how shameless the PLC Liberals have become in their determination to free Alemán from paying the price for ravaging the state treasury. Yet another tragic verification. Only hours after Guadamuz was killed, Alemán’s minions in the National Assembly introduced the amnesty bill they had been promising.
It’s a real piece of work. It proposes nothing less than the full “pardon and erasure” of crimes, categorized in four national laws, committed by public officials and employees over the past 14 years—“between March 14, 1990 and the date on which this decree goes into effect.” Those laws cover crimes against state goods (fraud, embezzlement, graft, etc., etc.), sexual crimes, electoral crimes and money laundering crimes.
To amass the consensus needed to set Alemán free, the Liberals threw out bait in all directions. The amnesty decree would not only cover Alemán’s conviction and the accusations hanging over other current and former officials for crimes against state goods, including the Sandinista “piñata.” It would also cover charges filed against several politicians for sexual crimes and the accusations of electoral crimes made against a number of politicians, including President Bolaños and several of his top officials.
While the contents of the decree itself produced genuine consternation, the “Wherebys” preceding it are a regular anthology: “Whereby 1) peace and national social stability are the most urgent priorities that the politically organized Nicaraguan nation needs to attain for the prosperity of the state and fulfillment of its fundamental duties; this state of grace can only be achieved through rapprochement and reconciliation by all Nicaraguans; national peace, stability and reconciliation are necessary and indispensable suppositions if the inhabitants of the nation are to go forward united and with the hope of a fundamental change in interrelations among all Nicaraguans.
2) It is extremely important and urgent to reestablish harmony and the fraternal linking of all citizens so they can devote themselves to repairing the damage and disruption caused to the nation by constant social confrontations. 3) Achieving this state of grace and stability requires the pardoning and erasure of errors that may have been incurred in the performance of public or private functions…” These were the official reasons given for decreeing an excessively expansive amnesty.
One wrong stepAs attractive as the bait was, no one could endorse such a judicial and ethical aberration at a time when public opinion, the media, a huge array of civil society voices, the President and his backers, Daniel Ortega’s supporters and even the US Embassy were expressing their unrelenting opposition to its passage.
Undaunted by such sustained and widespread opposition, Alemán’s supporters did not back off. Their only problem, and they admitted it shamelessly, was that they lacked the votes to push it through the plenary. For two weeks they put all their energy into finding any possible gaps or fissures through which to slide their bill into the appropriate National Assembly committee and the best day, hour and minute to do it so it would be ready for passage at the opportune time.
They decided to make their move on February 25, forcing all parliamentary procedures, but a majority of the legislators blocked it and the plenary session ended in a tumultuous row. Parliament has been paralyzed ever since, as the PLC bench’s determination to legalize its hero’s illegalities quickly began to boomerang.
Yet another crisisTheir clumsiness revitalized Daniel Ortega, who donned the ultimatum-wielding role of national arbitrator: the Assembly’s directive board members, dominated by the four Alemán backers who had illegally moved the decree to committee, should either recognize their error and resign or they will be removed. They should either sort out the paralysis in the legislative branch and in the court system—where the Ortega-Alemán tensions have particularly affected the country’s appellate and civil courts —or Alemán will be transferred from his hacienda-prison to the La Modelo Prison, which is one of his worst nightmares.
Ortega has the judges and justices in place to get Alemán moved wherever he wants him, and within days he got the 47 votes needed to make good on his threat to remove the entire board. Meanwhile, Alemán’s backers on the board seemed to have figured out that they had gone about things the wrong way, but they refused to resign and insisted they would keep going after the amnesty: if not by decree then by law. They turned on Bolaños: unless he approved the amnesty, they would withdraw their support from the priority legislation required of him by the International Monetary Fund, including the judicial career bill, the bill on state goods and reforms to the budget law. They would even refuse to approve the free trade agreement with the United States. As happens so often, with each new round in this heated, exhausting crisis, there is no closure as we go to press.
Was it a trap? Criticisms rained down from all sides on both the bill and its proponents. It was labeled an apology for corruption, a national embarrassment, a judicial and moral aberration, a carte blanche for impunity… no words seemed strong enough.
In fact, both the text and the procedure surrounding it were so obscene that Liberal dissidents—particularly Jaime Morales Carazo and Eliseo Núñez Jr.—began to suggest that the legislators heading the move were not really seeking to free Alemán. According to them, the idea dreamed up by Jamileth Bonilla, Wilfredo Navarro and Enrique Quiñónez was to keep Alemán imprisoned on his hacienda as long as possible, dependent on the strategies of these supposed loyalists as he awaits his liberation with increasing desperation. This dependence and anxiety, fed by strategies doomed to fail, would buy these extremist PLC politicians enough time to take over the PLC for themselves.
The time is not yet ripe The perspective of René Herrera, one of the PLC’s craftier legislators, continues to be the most prophetic: he strongly criticized the procedures used to impose the amnesty and announced his willingness to join Sandinistas and Bolaños backers to oust the Assembly board. For him, the issue is timing. A few months ago, he criticized other Alemán supporters for so desperately seeking to spring him. Herrera’s strategy, he announced then and repeated now, is a slower but surer plan that links Alemán’s removal from his thus-far comfy “prison” to national stability.
In Herrera’s words, “I have never denied… that I want freedom for my brother Arnoldo, but things have their moment and their opportunity, and the time is not yet ripe.” What would be the right moment? Is Nicaraguan society prepared to accept Alemán’s freedom and assume the consequences? Will Nicaraguan society really have no other option than to tolerate certain corruption levels and total impunity?
The bright glow of international backing sheds no light at homeOn the third slant of the triangle we find President Enrique Bolaños facing—or, rather, not facing—his fundamental paradox: while international support for him and his “new era government” continues to grow, his national popularity continues to slide. He is brightly lit on the international stage, but treads the domestic boards in darkness.
Internationally, Bolaños’ administration is viewed as a total success. He is seen as a bold statesman who dared to jail a former President for his corruption and as an efficient administrator who has put the extremely disordered public finances in order. He is also seen as a battler against corruption, especially for having developed a system of control over public goods that is radically different from former governments. He has a more organized, more transparent, more business-oriented management style that is to the donors’ liking. And when he is compared with his colleagues in Central America and the rest of Latin America, all these virtues look even better.
There is also international approval of the government team with which he has surrounded himself. In addition to imposing order on public finances, it appears to be upholding his new government style and has put together a national development strategy that is lauded for its coherent public policy framework, reflecting what is known internationally today as “healthy macroeconomic management.”
Our prediction was wrongEnrique Bolaños is very highly rated by the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank, as reflected in Nicaragua’s admission in January to the culmination point of their initiative for highly indebted poor countries (HIPC) and in the volumes of foreign aid that Nicaragua continues to receive. As a result, the drastic drop in foreign aid many of us were predicting because of the donor community’s bad experience with recent governments has not in fact occurred.
It was expected that the increased aid Nicaragua received in 1998-2000 would be an ephemeral blip on the screen, motivated only by the cataclysm of Hurricane Mitch, whose tragic images were flashed across the world. The assumption was that the more structural drop in aid would become evident when the reconstruction projects came to an end, and as many of them were three-year packages, this would presumably be precisely when Bolaños took office in 2002. But that did not happen. The aid flow did slow down that year, because Bolaños had to replace the international hard currency reserves used to bail out several failed banks in previous years—not to mention the part that went into Alemán’s pockets—before he could negotiate a new three-year structural adjustment agreement. Since then, however, Bolaños has secured a considerable flow of bilateral and multilateral aid, which while perhaps not actually increasing, has certainly not fallen.
All this explains, if not justifies, Bolaños self-congratulation on any occasion that presents itself. The international validation is pumping up his ego, and it is not coming just from the Bush government, which is so reviled on the world stage. It is in fact virtually unanimous, from center-left European governments to the extreme-right government of the United States. Swiss government aid has been growing and the cooperation ministers of both Sweden and Holland visited Nicaragua recently to offer increased official aid…
History has repeatedly shown that US government support is determined not by what’s good for the other country but simply by its pragmatic pursuit of its own interests. European government support for the Bolaños government, in contrast, results from their satisfaction with the order it has imposed and with the basic principles of Bolaños’ administration. Those governments would never have backed him had there been even a hint of Arnoldo Alemán’s style of government. They are clearly not satisfied with the administration of key areas such as education and health or everything that has been done (or not done) in the poverty reduction strategy, but they are sufficiently encouraged by its initial phase to maintain their support.
A tough beginningThe erosion of national support for Bolaños’ government also has its justifications. When Bolaños took office in January 2002, the magnitude of the imbalances that had crippled Nicaragua’s public finances for the previous two years was nearly comparable to the outlandish deficits of the eighties, when the war forced extraordinary spending.
But the IMF did not condemn these gigantic imbalances or insist on putting them in order. Such unusual tolerance was apparently due to a generalized fear among the international financial agencies that Daniel Ortega could win the presidential elections. In that chaos, the IMF declared the structural adjustment “suspended” and limited itself to monitoring the marked deterioration of public finances.
Bolaños initially had to show these agencies that there would be no continuity with the Alemán government. To do that, he had to drastically clean up national finances, including cutting public investments to the bone. He was given a year to prove himself, and, indeed, his determination to create financial order resulted in a new structural adjustment agreement with the IMF at the end of that year. But it was also a year so riddled with tensions resulting from the Bolaños-Alemán conflict and governmental strategies and tactics to remove Alemán from the political stage that the general view was that the new government was not “getting off the ground.” Of course it wasn’t; it was busy slashing public spending and its main critics were the very people who had left the country mired in bankruptcy.
A screeching haltThe previous government’s public investment program, bloated by the extraordinary funds that flooded into Nicaragua after Hurricane Mitch, allowed Alemán to bill himself as the “builder President.” Despite his far greater fame as a world-class embezzler, PLC sympathizers still identify Alemán with this more beneficent image. The 25% or more in the polls who say they want to see him freed believe that such largesse resulted more from his persuasive skills than the international response to a massive natural disaster, and can thus be repeated. Even after everything that has happened, many Nicaraguans still feel no twinge when voicing the opinion they had of Alemán when he was mayor of Managua—sure he steals from the till, but he gets things done.
Public investment in roads, highways, schools, health centers, in fact constructions of all kinds always provides the greatest political returns to those in office. Finally, having passed all the tests, Bolaños can now dust off some of his own public investment programs, those contained in his National Development Plan.
The public spending contraction in the first two years of his government brought the country’s economic growth, already severely affected by the fall in international coffee prices, to a screeching halt. The growth rates in 2002 and 2003 (1% and 2.3%) were below the population’s growth rate and well below IMF forecasts, which were absurdly optimistic given the existence of a number of financial problems exacerbated by Alemán’s pillaging of the public coffers.
The required adjustments to public finances have necessarily come at the cost of the country’s economic growth. The IMF could have been more flexible, dictating much more gradual public spending and investment cuts to avoid affecting the country’s economic growth as much as they have.
When the government released the first draft of its National Development Plan late last year, it projected relatively rapid and high economic recovery rates for 2004 and 2005. But official figures show that this initial optimism has deflated significantly. It is now being said with no hedging that this will simply not be possible.
More poor and poorerAlthough officials don’t want to admit it, optimism is not part of the official agenda. Nicaragua’s growth rates for the next two years will be below what the IMF and World Bank like to call its “potential rate,” the point at which the country should generate economic growth (close to 3%). They have fixed our potential rate at 5%, calculating that, given Nicaragua’s high population growth, a 2% per-capita growth rate would be enough to make a dent in the country’s extreme poverty and meet the Millennium Goals set for 2015 in the areas of health, education, maternal and infant mortality, literacy, nutrition, etc. Conversely, dropping below 5% growth will result in shortfalls in those goals.
With 11 years to go, it is already clear that few, if any, of those goals will be met. The IMF admits that over half of the indicators of Nicaragua’s progress toward the Millennium goals show that programmed poverty reduction targets are not being met, citing key indicators for infant mortality and illiteracy.
A new living standard survey to be conducted in 2005 will almost certainly show that poverty has increased in both absolute and relative terms during the Bolaños government’s first three years. In other words, it will show that more people are below the poverty line, and are further below it. The government will surely try to downplay these statistics and insofar as they become public knowledge will seek to blame them on the corruption institutionalized by Alemán’s government.
A dream that won’t come trueDespite his international popularity, these domestic data mean that Bolaños will not realize the dream he aspired to in his inaugural speech: to be recognized and remembered as Nicaragua’s best ever head of state.
While Bolaños’ eroded domestic popularity can be partially excused by the disorganized and ravaged macro economy he inherited, there are other less justifiable reasons for it. For starters, he has not offered any socially sensitive explanation for all that has happened and is continuing to happen. During his electoral campaign, Bolaños’ speeches were full of statements about everyone “rolling up their sleeves” and “working together” so we can all “save together.” It was a great approach given the hard reality of the country he wanted to govern. But once in office, not another word has been said—particularly about “tightening our belts.”
The symbol of this failure that has cost him the bulk of his popularity is his obstinate clinging to his double-dip government earnings of nearly $20,000 a month, consisting of his presidential salary and his vice presidential pension. Although it can no longer be claimed that there is the kind of obscene squandering of resources and open, systematic thieving that characterized his predecessor’s government, enormous salaries are still in effect for the circles of often inefficient officials who are close to the President or useful to his political interest in organizing a Liberalism without Alemán. No belt-tightening is going in those circles.
The wage gapThe fact that Bolaños is permanently outflanked by two “political bosses”—as he recently called Ortega and Alemán—explains why he has surrounded himself with loyal, even opportunist friends and relatives whom he retains with high salaries, arguing that they should be paid so well since the country lacks skilled leadership. In so doing, he is transferring the logic of private enterprise, with its clear elitist quality, to public administration. The idea is that if you want them to be efficient you have to pay them well.
But this government isn’t as efficient as it claims to be. Furthermore, it is not his highly paid managers who guarantee efficient management of public services. This depends much more on a professional civil service and on teachers and doctors earning at least a minimally respectable salary.
This government utterly lacks the sensibility to understand that the kind of unjust salary gap that again exists in Nicaragua actually generates inefficiency. The government is no different than the two main political parties—the FSLN and the PLC—in that all three see everything from above. The only difference is that in the parties everything is seen through the eyes of the political elite, whereas in the government it is a technical elite that decides, acts, represents and tries to mold a country in which it is a tiny minority.
No consensus on the development planNor has the government been able to move beyond the “good intentions” expressed in the National Development Plan (NDP). What has been put into practice so far—road projects, Rural Development Institute subsidies in the cattle areas for purchasing milk processing equipment, etc.—has had little impact. They are small injections into tiny islands of activity, largely because the government has been unable to articulate consensus around the plan.
When the debate over the NDP started to polarize—which was immediately after it was published—the government made no systematic effort to forge the minimum consensus needed to push through its implementation. Government officials are instead running around complying with the plan’s formal requisites for participation. President Bolaños himself is visiting the departments to approve the corresponding departmental development plan included in the national plan for this year, which covers all public investments for 2004, but these mere formalities do not compensate for real consensus-building efforts with the department’s active forces. Everything is taking place in the upper echelons: while the formalities are being fulfilled and formal participation procedures are being implemented, the real decisions are being and will continue to be made at the elite level.
It would all have been different had there been the capacity to link together local forces. But this government has a patent inability to negotiate and/or establish consensus that is not explained at the municipal level by either the weight of the parties or the political polarization dominating the national stage. These issues are no real obstacle at the local level.
What one sees in the central government is a national Liberal elite with a technocratic style, which contrasts with the very traditional style of the Liberal departmental authorities, municipal mayors and local officials. This problem would exist even if there had been no clashes between Bolaños and Alemán forces within the PLC, even if the two men had been friends. They are two ways of conceiving the work, two approaches to public administration that do not dovetail on any level. They are like oil and water.
Bolaños needs support at homeThe magnitude of Nicaragua’s problem is such that the government needs to have everybody on board, a fact that it doesn’t seem to understand. The unanimous international backing and the technocratic nature of its political conception lead its officials to believe that financial resources, international support and their own wisdom are all they need to get the boat sailing and ultimately make it safely to port.
The government’s eternal willingness to serve US interests is also eroding Bolaños’ domestic popularity. In addition to everything they learned during the Sandinista government, the Nicaraguan people’s culture has always been rooted in Sandino’s principles of national sovereignty and dignity. Even rightwing analysts are criticizing the overbearing US policy that exhibits no respect for the real Nicaragua in which we live and are trying to survive. If Bolaños and his top officials had a lick of sense and even half a lick of dignity, they would have varied their policy of constant submission. Instead they’re increasing it with every passing day.
After just over two years of government, Bolaños continues to trust more in the saving grace of resources from overseas than those of the nation he is governing. This has now translated into blind faith in the free trade agreement with the United States. Bolaños displays confidence in his own brightness, in the elite group of officials surrounding him and in the foreign resources, but makes no attempt to remind the country that we have a lot of resources and capabilities of our own and can push ahead with confidence in ourselves. This attitude contributes largely to the national reprobation.
He does nothing, feels nothingBolaños’ governing style is palpable in the Great Liberal Unity (GUL), a party he has played a major role in founding since he took office. Will its participation in the municipal elections sound its early death knell? Most probably.
The political failure that the GUL is already experiencing is another expression of the above-mentioned water and oil contradiction: elitist Liberal leaders uselessly trying to win over a very traditional Liberal grass roots. It also expresses the impact of two years of economic recession and the govern-ment’s largely failed promises to create jobs. This contrasts with the lingering image of a “builder President” whom many still compare favorably to this “do nothing, feel nothing” President.