Envío Digital
Central American University - UCA  
  Number 276 | Julio 2004



The Corruption of Words

Two years ago, the fight against corruption in Nicaragua made new and novel inroads into the construction of citizenship in Nicaragua. With the objectives and exemplarity of this governmental initiative now fading from memory, today' s ruthless and short-sighted struggles for power are increasing another kind of corruption each passing day: the corruption of words, which sow confusion, spark scandals and deepen the nation's demoralization.

Nitlápan-Envío team

The mood in the run-up to the celebrations of the 111th anniversary of the Liberal revolution (July 11) and the 25th anniversary of the Sandinista revolution (July 19) has rightly been characterized by some as “political cannibalism.” The fierce internal struggle in the Constitutionalist Liberal Party (PLC) continues to revolve around the destiny of ex-President cum convicted criminal Arnoldo Alemán and the selection of the party’s presidential candidate for 2006. In the Sandinista National Liberation Front (FSLN), the seemingly implacable struggle between the Ortega brothers for hegemony of the party’s decision making and direction is now also focusing on the presidential candidacy. June’s surprise package, however, was the Catholic hierarchy’s shockingly open participation in the ongoing political maneuvers of these two poles of power, forcing the hand of the executive branch, the third but far weaker depository of political power, which has zigged and zagged in response to its two rivals. Meanwhile, the meaning of words is devaluing faster than the country’s currency.

Bolaños - Rizo - Alemán

The month opened with Vice President José Rizo proposing, in the name of “austerity,” a constitutional reform that would give the National Assembly the power to approve each presidential trip. Rizo’s words and actions have been explained for some time by his efforts to secure Alemán’s anointment as the PLC’s next presidential candidate. He is hoping that his continuous public clashes with President Bolaños and the shift in his stated opinions about Alemán’s fate will be enough to win over the PLC caudillo.
This time Rizo picked a rankling winner of an issue, because President Bolaños’ continuous junkets abroad are indeed beginning to breed a low-intensity scandal. His attendance at the royal wedding in Madrid—one of the most irrelevant and unnecessary—was the last straw.

In a childishly peeved retort before leaving again, this time for Japan, Bolaños issued a presidential decree ordering Rizo and all Cabinet members to request executive authorization 30 days in advance of any trip out of the country. Rizo, who apparently does not think that the sauce for goose goes well on gander, announced that he would not respect the decree, this time out of “respect for form and institutionality.” He reportedly eventually convinced Bolaños to annul it.

Montealegre - PLC

Another hotspot of internal Liberal dispute flared again this month, this time in the name of “party legality.” Another effort was made to knock Eduardo Montealegre, Bolaños’ trusted presidential secretary, out of the presidential running because of Alemán’s intolerance of Montealegre’s alternative leadership in the PLC. Alemán’s strongest backers also speak of “coherency,” by which they mean that Monte-alegre’s loyalty to President Bolaños contradicts the party’s decision, made over a year ago, to define itself as an “opposition party,” despite the fact that Bolaños won on its ticket.

Montealegre argues that it is “service to the nation” that keeps him in Bolaños’ Cabinet, while his loyalty to the PLC is based on the struggle for “democracy.” He also insists that he is keeping one foot in each camp because he “thinks for himself.” He knows that the US Embassy is banking on him to unify all anti-Sandinistas under his candidacy in the 2006 elections. And the Embassy in turn knows that Alemán can only be weakened a little at a time, that the PLC machinery isn’t a used car that can be traded in for a new model that will speed Montealegre smoothly to the winning post.

PLC - APRE - GUL - Alemán

After weeks of near total and very welcomed media silence about Arnoldo Alemán, he returned to the center of the debate this month. Following a hardly credible announcement of a “macabre plan” to kill him, Alemán was transferred in early June from a remodeled office of La Modelo Prison, where he had been incarcerated since March 19, to cell 9. That triggered the reopening of negotiations among the three bands over his fate. And as any negotiator knows, talks go nowhere unless both sides have something to trade.

Parliamentary president Carlos Noguera has openly admitted visiting Alemán in prison several times for guidance on dealing with the package of bills Bolaños wants passed. But Bolaños is obviously not prepared to admit such actions within his own ranks and abruptly relieved PLC leader Eduardo Urcuyo of his post as head of TELCOR (telecommunications), ostensibly for the same behavior. It did not of course help Urcuyo’s job security that he had publicly criticized the use of executive office to create two new parties over the past year: first the Grand Liberal Unity, then when that foundered the Alliance for the Republic (APRE), made up of Conservatives, pro-Bolaños Liberals and a smattering of other groups and individual public figures.

Both Noguera and Urcuyo acknowledge Alemán’s indisputable leadership and the need for his seal of approval on all PLC decisions. Urcuyo, who strongly criticized Alemán’s governmental corruption for a long time, now refers to the man who authored the embezzlement of well over US$100 million in public funds as “this country’s fin de siècle political figure.”
Is Liberalism viable without Alemán? Given the Liberal actors’ behavior since Alemán’s incarceration, the answer would appear to be no.

Alemán does appear to be softening his opposition to the Bolaños camp, however, presumably because of the PLC’s financial crisis, which is hurting its municipal electoral campaign this year and could jeopardize the presidential campaign in two years’ time. With the PLC in the opposition and thus lacking a presidential till in which to dip, and with Bolaños now supporting APRE, where can the PLC find the funds for these campaigns?

Hands - fingers - more pacts

With the PLC’s reins still in his hands, Alemán has to decide where to give in a little and where not. He has to call in favors and tweak debts, pressuring those who have something to lose and convincing those who have something to gain, holding group and one-on-one meetings. He can’t do all that from cell number 9, where his visits are controlled and he feels like a truly constrained prisoner for the first time.
Only days after being moved to that cell, a new ailment cropped up alongside his six chronic ones: he couldn’t move two fingers on his right hand, the same one with which he signed so many checks for salary bonuses, ghost companies, perks, party finances and a plethora of personal privileges. Once this highly symbolic illness became public, it unleashed a medical-legal debate about just how serious it might be—“he’ll end up paralyzed” or “his hand could rot off”—and the “humanitarian” imperative for urgent surgery… followed by long rehabilitation.

The PLC legislative bench used a carrot-and-stick approach with Bolaños. The carrot they proffered was that they work together “for the benefit of the country,” pushing through the package of bills he needs in exchange for transferring Alemán back out to El Chile, his hacienda, given the “gravity” of his physical condition. The stick was the threat that if Bolaños didn’t go along with the plan, they would ally with the FSLN bench to approve other laws that they knew the executive wanted buried. And it was not an idle threat: during this medical controversy, the FSLN and PLC benches finally approved the budget reforms opposed by the International Monetary Fund, putting Bolaños in a major fiscal bind.

But that was only a warning shot. In the legislative package still to be approved is the highly controversial judicial career bill, centerpiece of all debates. Then there’s the long list of important appointments, among them 16 appeals court justices, the banking superintendent, the director of a new entity—the Superintendence of Public Services—proposed by both parties, plus the human rights defense attorney and his or her deputy. The Human Rights Defense Office ended up headless on June 15, when Liberals and Sandinistas failed to agree on who would be most loyal to their interests in this state institution.


Returning to the fate of the prisoner in cell number 9, President Bolaños reacted to the maneuver by charging that a new pact was being hammered out between the PLC and the FSLN with Alemán’s freedom a major point of negotiations. Not surprisingly, the FSLN counter-charged that a pact was in the works between the PLC and Bolaños to allow Alemán to return to his hacienda or to release him. FSLN head Daniel Ortega reiterated that his party had no say in the Alemán case. Who did he think would buy that one?
The FSLN leadership would prefer Alemán to remain in prison under scrutiny until as close to the 2006 elections as possible, rather than in optimal conditions under hacienda arrest. This will aggravate the fight between Bolaños and Alemán followers in the Liberal camp, feed resentments and play up the competition among those who want Alemán’s blessing as the PLC presidential candidate. In short, keeping him in prison awaiting the final sentence on his appeal in the two cases that sent him there—the Channel 6 check scam and what is known as La Guaca (the stash)—guarantees the continuance of the Liberal split. And that split is precisely what both Humberto and Daniel Ortega, not to mention the US Embassy, believe will give the FSLN an electoral victory.

But there are signs that the PLC’s funding crisis, the certainty of funds for APRE, the US Embassy’s orientations and Alemán’s own more realistic calculations are encouraging some kind of APRE-PLC alliance for the municipal elections. This would leave the huge battle to forge real anti-Sandinista unity and a single presidential candidate until after those elections, when the alliance has something to show for itself. Clearer indications of the likelihood of such an alliance will surely come out of the Liberal convention on July 11.

Cardinal Obando into the fray

It was against this backdrop that the month’s most significant events took place. Alemán’s transfer to a real cell and his sudden new ailment led Cardinal Miguel Obando to visit him in prison on June 15, reportedly at the request of Alemán’s family, to give him “spiritual comfort.” He bore a legal entry permit for himself, his vicar Eddy Montenegro and “a third companion who will be identified on appearance at the penitentiary.” The result, as could be expected, was that the guard at the gate denied entry to the third person. With that, the cardinal huffily refused to enter only with Montenegro, and said to the waiting press, “Naturally this is a scheme by a certain party that you men of the press, who have a higher IQ than mine, will understand.” When one reporter said they had speculated that it might be Daniel Ortega in the vehicle with smoked windows behind the cardinal’s SUV, Obando explained that the mystery man was Monsignor Francisco Castrillo. It was never explained why he was not previously identified or why the judge agreed to issue the order with this imprecision.

Instead of simply respecting the penitentiary system’s strict rules and using the incident to set an example as a citizen who honors the principle of equality before the law, Cardinal Obando and his auxiliary bishop for Managua, Jorge Solórzano, proceeded to magnify the incident even more over the ensuing days. As one Managua market vender rightly remarked, “They made a mountain out of a molehill.” Even La Prensa published an editorial calling the cardinal’s “everybody or nobody” position “inappropriate” and siding with the guard for simply doing his duty, but that was a full week later.
President Bolaños was on another of his trips when the molehill erupted. And as usual, his absence revealed the limited political capacity of those who fill in as the visible heads of government. It is the kind of opportunity that the wiliest individuals from the other two bands continually exploit to further undermine Bolaños’ already weakened domestic authority.

Minister of Government Julio Vega immediately made a public apology—without a word of defense for the officer who had only been following the rules. Vice President Rizo went so far as to visit the cardinal personally to show his solidarity, declaring that the denial of entry amounted to a “spiritual attack.” Responding to a journalist’s probe, Obando—who several months ago named Rizo as the majordomo of the August celebrations of Santo Domingo de Guzmán, Managua’s patron saint—later opined that Rizo has “the right qualities” to be President.

Opportunistically chiming in, FSLN leaders Tomás Borge and Daniel Ortega called the purported mistreatment of a spiritual leader “unspeakable,” while pro-Alemán legislators issued a communiqué about the “unjust outrage” and, inspired by the Venezuelan example, suggested a “revocatory” referendum on Bolaños’ mandate.

A government plot to
“persecute” the Church?

Continuing to blow things out of all proportion, Bishop Solórzano interpreted the incident at the penitentiary gate as part of a government-orchestrated campaign to pressure the media into silencing the cardinal’s pastoral work. He claimed that the Catholic Church was being “persecuted” and suffering “censorship the like of which we never saw either in Somoza’s time or under the Sandinista regime” that was affecting “certain written, radio and television media.”
Cardinal Obando corroborated Solórzano’s words, although both refused to identify the source that had informed them about the campaign, the government group orchestrating it or the media participating in the alleged blackout of “anything to do with His Eminence.” This is the fourth time during Bolaños’ less than three years in office that the cardinal and his followers have declared themselves “persecuted,” and also the fourth time they have failed to provide any data that would allow authorities to confirm the veracity of the charge and investigate the “persecutors.”
Two days after the incident, Julio Vega and Eduardo Montealegre headed up an executive branch delegation that visited the cardinal to ask for “pardon” and assume “all blame” for what had happened. Vega’s utterance on that occasion is one for the book on the corruption of words: “God controls everything on Earth and God knows our righteous intention and our respect for His Eminence. And I believe we have to put Christ first in this relation that we are strengthening with the Catholic Church because the devil is astute, moves in everywhere and invades our lives.”
Cardinal Obando received the vindication with evident pleasure, reiterating that the Church doesn’t want any “crisis,” but does want the facts established. Yet the very next day he returned to the theme of the “persecuted Church,” while the government published an eye-catching ad again denying any such persecution.

That same afternoon, Alemán was moved from his prison cell to the Military Hospital for the operation on his fingers. During the first 15 hours of his internment alone, he received 40 visits from friends and Liberal cohorts. Thus opened a new phase of three-way negotiations, with Arnoldo Alemán very much in the middle. His fingers were finally operated on June 22, and though the surgery only lasted 20 minutes, it was decided that for “medical reasons” his stay in the hospital would be extended to include rehabilitation—at least until all major issues and loose ends related to the July 11 PLC convention had been tied up
As events escalated, the bishop of Estelí, Abelardo Mata, an active member of the committee created last year to defend prisoner Alemán’s “human rights,” stingingly criticized the Bolaños government’s “effrontery.” His string of adjectives went on and on: “luxury, vanity, haughtiness, squandering misgovernment and lack of social consciousness,” throwing in for good measure “the folly of wanting to make the cardinal appear ridiculous.”
Meanwhile, Bishop Solórzano added more on the alleged government plot to persecute the Church: he accused Bolaños of having sent emissaries to the Vatican to ask for Cardinal Obando’s replacement as head of the archdiocese of Managua. (In fact, the cardinal presented his resignation to the Vatican in 2001 when he turned 75, as required, but it has not yet been accepted).
A few days later it came out that the Nicaraguan ambassador to the Vatican had requested information from the foreign ministry in Managua on a Church-State Concordat signed in 1861. This agreement, which is obsolete in practice, allows the government to propose candidates for bishops in exchange for giving the Catholic hierarchy a series of privileges derived from the establishment of Catholicism as the official religion.
This untimely move played right into the hierarchy’s hands; whatever the ambassador’s motivation, they interpreted it as more proof of the “persecution.” And the President, now back in Managua, responded with religious umbrage: anyone who would believe such a thing, he claimed, “will burn in hell as a liar.”

Who believes all this?

How many people take the slight against the cardinal all that seriously? And do they believe the accusations of Church persecution? According to a poll conducted by M&R Associates less than a week after the cardinal’s aborted visit to the prison, 66.8% believed Obando should not have been allowed entrance because he failed to fulfill the requisites, while 28.6% viewed the issue as a government attack on the Church. Asked who they believed benefits from the clash, opinions were almost evenly divided among Alemán (18.5%), the Church (18.3%), the FSLN (17.3%) and the government (17%), with 10% saying no one and 15.5% unable or unwilling to decide.

Not even all members of the hierarchy climbed on board with Cardinal Obando. The Bishop of Granada, Bernardo Hombach, was quoted in La Prensa as saying, “I have to tell the truth: I saw it as an incident of little importance. I don’t agree with certain people who speak of a persecution of the Church. Anyone who says this has never lived in a country where there really was persecution. Here in Nicaragua there’s no persecution of the Church; that would be a real exaggeration. There are, however, occasional manifestations of anti-clericalism.”
In his book Clérigos, Psicograma de un Ideal, German Catholic theologian Eugen Drewermann presents one of the most exhaustive and devastating studies of the ideas of Catholic Church officials, seen from a psychoanalytic perspective. He argues that the reaction of the Catholic base to the overbearing authoritarian power of the Church never takes the form of a ‘revolution,’ but is rather expressed as a silent desertion or an internalized indifference. Drewermann adds that both forms of quiet protest are beginning to have resonance, but will have no effect on the upper ecclesial echelons until the Church’s economic base is bankrupt.

Are these two forms of “quiet protest” taking place in Nicaragua? There has been an evident shift of Catholics—in name or by tradition—to the wide array of Protestant and Evangelical groups that have taken root in Nicaragua. Even more evident and more worrying is the mass exodus of professionals to ambiguous religious groups based on “conversion,” on rites related to guilt and on fundamentalist dogmas rooted in a poorly informed reading of the Bible, all seasoned with indigestible multi-use, multi-flavor religious confusion. Be all that as it may, there is still no sign of either protest or alternative proposals.

It is a tough situation to analyze without bearing in mind that both the traditional religiosity inherited from the Conquest and these new magical and irrational forms are based on a perverse idea of God, not at all rooted in the word of Jesus of Nazareth and thus not at all Christian.

This idea of God dominates in a society that is not laical and a state that responds by resisting becoming laical. These cultural underpinnings make it extremely difficult to distinguish and accurately measure any “silent desertion” or “internalized indifference” that may be underway.

The deal

With respect to the ecclesial power’s economic base, it is well known that the new controls on state resources deprived the Catholic hierarchy of a whole series of privileges from which it benefited during the Alemán government. This twist of the anti-corruption struggle largely explains the deterioration in the hierarchy’s relations with the government of Enrique Bolaños, a strong Catholic, from the outset of his term.

This makes it even more significant that the pardon requested by Minister of Government Vega and accepted by Cardinal Obando also involved Secretary of the Presidency Eduardo Montealegre’s announcement that, “in the interest of an understanding,” he would personally review all the tax exonerations and customs favors conceded to the Catholic Church with an eye to reestablishing them.

Without delving further into the cultural and economic roots that could help explain this confusion, it was clear that, thanks to the mini-incident at the penitentiary gate magnified into a mega-scandal, the church hierarchy achieved what the PLC politicians had previously failed to do. It put the government up against the ropes and got Alemán out of his confinement.

FSLN - Church - peace - love…reconciliation?

By the end of June, the only party left out of this scenario was the FSLN. But when the “plot-against-the-cardinal” conspiracy theory peaked following the news about the Concordat, Daniel Ortega took it as his cue to enter stage right.

On June 25, he too paid a personal visit to Obando, with the official justification of wanting the backing of the cardinal’s “moral authority” for a proposed FSLN bill to slash the mega-salaries of Bolaños’ top public officials by half.

But behind that lurked another mission: to sound out the cardinal’s willingness to celebrate a Mass in the Cathedral the morning of July 19, to celebrate the 25th anniversary of the revolution. When the cardinal accepted as a gesture of “reconciliation,” Ortega aimed even higher: he proposed Cardinal Obando as a candidate for the Nobel Peace Prize, defining him as the Nicaraguan who has worked the hardest for peace, then challenged Bolaños to join his initiative.
The next day was the commemorative reenactment of El Repliegue, the FSLN’s strategic retreat to Masaya in 1979, only weeks before routing the National Guard. In his speech to the thousands of Sandinistas who participated in this annual event, Ortega explained the value of his initiative to what were surely many very confused people who recalled the cardinal’s determined work to undermine the revolution. “If we want to reaffirm reconciliation, love, peace and solidarity in Nicaragua, it would be just and well-deserved to award the Nobel Peace Prize to Cardinal Miguel Obando y Bravo.” With respect to the proposed Mass, in which Obando reportedly agreed to pray for the martyrs of that revolution Ortega distorted history even further by stating that, during his first visit to Nicaragua in March 1983, Pope John Paul II had prayed for those fallen in the war raging in the country at the time. The still painful truth of that event is that when a group of mothers of volunteer militia members ambushed and killed by the contras only days earlier had asked the Pope to pray for their souls, he refused. The outdoor mass of hundreds of thousands of people had erupted into a protest with the majority of those attending chanting “We want peace.”
Meanwhile, Daniel Ortega and his coterie that control the FSLN structures are continuing to air all too publicly their conflict with Managua Mayor Herty Lewites, all because Lewites has expressed interest in being Daniel Ortega’s running mate in the 2006 presidential elections. Lewites’ candidacy is rumored to be favored by Daniel’s brother Humberto, retired head of the Nicaraguan Army and now a very wealthy businessman with obvious economic interests that are not favored by the US hostility to his brother.

To the continuing caustic disqualifications uttered by his wife Rosario Murrillo, Daniel added new declarations this month, minimizing Lewites’ showing in polls as a more palatable candidate than him among the population in general and even the Sandinista electorate. “If he had the famous charisma they say he has,” argued Ortega, “he would have won the 1996 elections on the [independent] Sol ticket, but he lost and only won the Managua mayor’s office after he scurried back to the red and black flag…. Lewites is nothing outside of the FSLN.” That same day, Lenín Cerna, who is again heading up the FSLN’s “electoral commandos,” minced no words in making it clear that Lewites would not be an FSLN candidate.

Lewites is far too intelligent a political operator to point out that even the FSLN’s backing is no guarantee of electoral victory, as Ortega can testify after losing the last three presidential elections. Sagacious and true to his non-confrontational style, Lewites responded to this new broadside by underscoring what he has in common with Ortega, sidestepping any chance of inflaming the conflict. But it will surely heat up again as the definitive decision on candidates draws nearer.

The revolution

This whole ceremony of confusion, which seems more like a vulgar, offensive one-act farce than anything else, preceded the 25th anniversary of the most transcendental event in Nicaragua’s history: the overthrow of the Somoza dictatorship by a massive FSLN-led insurrection that cost thousands of lives, was full of heroic feats and was accompanied by an enormous outpouring of international solidarity.

What happened then, and perhaps more importantly the significance of what happened, attracted the imagination of millions of people all over the world, and had particular relevance in the rest of Latin America. What it symbolized was powerful: a cruel dynastic dictatorship brought down by an oppressed people headed by a rag-tag, spontaneously formed and untrained army of their own “muchachos” and “muchachas”; a David-Nicaragua against the Goliath-United States; the power of creative will against the entrenched structures of the past… Struggles that transcended borders and cultures were condensed in this triangular little country of barely 150,000 square kilometers at a time when the world was already moving toward the pragmatism and utilitarianism imposed by global capitalism, and when unbeknown to most the foundations of the Berlin Wall were already crumbling.. We were not yet talking about globalization in 1979, but it was beginning to crystallize and take shape; its first faces were Reagan, Thatcher and former Canadian Prime Minister Brian Mulroney.
Revolution: such a rich word and so full of profound meaning. Ten years later, the collapse of the Sandinista popular revolution would also express the collapse of the hopes of those of us who believed in the possibility of extending and expanding the ideas of justice, dignity and freedom, words that only seem to have value now when defined by the market.

As a nation with a memory and collective aspirations, Nicaragua has yet to find the words to interpret the causes and consequences—both positive and negative—of the revolution, or of the war that accompanied its decade-long existence. We have yet to find the words to express the responsibility we all have for everything that happened, preferring to bury the past, to try to forget. But as any experience that ends in unresolved trauma, the ghosts continue to plague and polarize the population, particularly on dates such as this, egging on violence and irresponsibility, sucking the healthy energy from any national project.

Will we ever find the words?

Will we be able to find the right words to interpret our past and reach some form of consensus about where we want to go? Those responsible for the pacts, negotiations and all manner of falsehoods, corruption and impunity, those who say they are our leaders, also have an enormous quota of responsibility for the corruption of the word. Hiding behind cynical and opportunist rhetoric—which causes increasing perplexity, especially when they all take God’s name in vain—they try to convince us that Nicaragua’s horizon of possibilities coincides with the limit and direction of their own personal ambitions.
If all paths begin with a step, undermining the corruption of the word by saying the truth will have to be the first one. If we take it, perhaps, just maybe, we can begin marking out the route that will lead us more surely to a new revolution.

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