Envío Digital
Central American University - UCA  
  Number 213 | Abril 1999



The Long March against Corruption

Nicaragua is still being battered by the hurricane winds of governmental corruption and the battle to control it. From the one side comes the President's latest and most regrettable scheme against the Office of Comptroller General and from the other the citizenry's first and most encouraging opposition to this scheme. But these two movements of action and reaction may be starting to alter the existing correlation of forces. Last month's "march against corruption" is a promising reaction from a society that has so far opted to be a spectator but could be starting to take on an active role. Meanwhile, the international community is concerned about the intensification of the institutional crisis triggered by the President.

Nitlápan-Envío team

In the donor countries' consultative group meeting to be held in late may in Stockholm, Sweden, the international community will firm up its financial support to Central America's post-Mitch reconstruction plans. As that meeting approaches, however, the region's governments appear to have embraced a disappointing strategy by opposing two aspects that Europe considered central to the meeting: that the proposals have a regional focus and that civil society play an active role in the meeting itself.
Very different actors and observers had quickly grasped that the devastation Hurricane Mitch left behind created an unexpected chance both to retool the existing models in each country and the region as a whole and to breathe new life into the much-needed regional integration. At the same time it offered an opportunity to forge consensus between the governments and their respective civil societies on both of these issues. With the Stockholm meeting only a month away, events seem to be taking neither course.

Against this backdrop, meanwhile, the international community is increasingly disconcerted as it watches the unfolding of the institutional crisis triggered by Nicaraguan President Arnoldo Alemán's fight with the Office of Comptroller General. The donor countries and multilateral lending agencies fear for the viability of the institutional framework set up to ensure that foreign cooperation will at least be used honestly in a country they see as fragmented and unable to reach enough consensus to ensure that the reconstruction aid is put to good use.

Low-intensity integration

Despite the regional emphasis that European donors, and particularly the Swedish host, wanted the Stockholm discussions to have, each Central American government plans to present its main economic and social projects individually. The reality behind current official rhetoric about regional fraternity and integrationist ideals is that competition has won out over cooperation. Each government will attend the meeting with all its energies focused on getting the biggest possible slice of the reconstruction pie, limiting the participation of the still weak Secretariat of Central American Integration (SICA) to a couple of small projects—mainly one on disaster prevention.

The justification offered for this failure to agree on common proposals is the very different damage levels that Mitch left in each of the five countries. Admittedly such agreement would be hard—they have achieved it very few times since their independence nearly two centuries ago and even those occasions were short-lived—but the time has come to set competitive nationalism aside. The increasing globalization of today's world is making it ever less viable for the region's tiny countries to compete alone, even among themselves, much less separately negotiate their insertion into the new trading blocs, thus leaving them little alternative but to integrate. The short-sightedness of the region's governors and the institutional immaturity of their lauded post-90s market democracies, however, have so far prevented an appropriate response to something apparently so obvious, even though probably no other region on the planet more naturally lends itself to integration than Central America.

After the 1994 trade agreements, Central American integration made little further progress, even though the five countries' have attended yearly regional summits to advance this agenda since 1990. Several regional institutions, such as the Central American Parliament, were formally set up, but they are beset by a dearth of political will to take on the tough task of building genuine regional institutionality. Now, following Mitch, that stagnation has turned into back-pedaling. Concerned observers of preparations for the Stockholm meeting commented to envío that the post-Mitch period has so exacerbated "nationalism" that "regional integration is at the rock-bottom, if not to say nonexistent level it hit in the 1980s, when each country was pulling its own way and convergence was nearly impossible."

Civil Societies also pulling their ways

The unwillingness or inability of Central America's governments to adopt what is called the "Copenhagen scheme" as part of the Stockholm meeting dynamic expresses the same short-sightedness and underdevelopment. According to this scheme, born out of the 1994 United Nations World Summit on Social Development held in Denmark, governments should cooperate with organizations of civil society rather than compete with them, discussing their respective agendas until they reach a consensus that allows the joint undertaking of projects that ensure more harmonious, participatory, sustainable and equitable development.

Eschewing this approach, however, the Central American governments prefer to take their own projects to the Stockholm meeting and negotiate them bilaterally with the international community, thus monopolizing the representation of their peoples. Naturally they will fulfill some formalities, for example arriving on the appointed day accompanied by some handpicked token organization from their respective civil societies.

Central America's NGOs and many of its social organizations will be represented in Stockholm through their own umbrella organizations, however. And, unlike at the first post-Mitch donor community meeting, held in Washington last December, these organizations will sit at the table with the international community to argue for their own resources. But they too will take bilateral rather than regional proposals. Mitch inadvertently forged a level of national coordination among the organizations of civil society in some countries that had not existed before, but regional cooperation among these far from consolidated umbrella entities was too much to hope for. For all these reasons, the needed national consensus and the urgent regional consensus will be absent from the negotiating table.
The international community has its own—and also not always shared—parameters about what constitutes appropriate and inappropriate pressure on counterpart countries; within this framework the definition of what constitutes interfering in the internal affairs of such a country can get quite tricky. It is one thing, for example, to suggest or recommend to the Central American governments that they emphasize the regional aspects and seek to build consensus with their civil societies, and quite another to use their clearly superior power to exert pressure. The Inter-American Development Bank (IDB), which has become the main financing source for the Central American countries and whose main shareholders include the continent's own governments, tries hard to avoid engaging in this particular kind of pressure.

On the other hand, the Stockholm meeting itself will also be influenced by a deeply rooted bilateral and competitive spirit, introduced by the United States. US cooperation projects have their own particular style and emphases, which are very different from those of most European governments. US aid is never decided multilaterally, and one of the many objectives of the billion dollars President Clinton promised the region as a whole during his March tour is to promote bilateral linkages and perspectives.

The Emergency Coalition's proposal

Nicaragua's Emergency Relief and Reconstruction Coalition, which groups together over 300 nongovernmental and social organizations, embraces much of the political-philosophical underpinning of the Copenhagen scheme. In this spirit, it proposed to the Alemán government that it go to Stockholm as part of the official delegation, and that government and Coalition teams previously identify the areas of agreement, disagreement and gaps between their respective reconstruction proposals so as to combine them into a single consensual document to present to the donors. Since the government has not given a definite no, nor is likely to, the Coalition will continue working to "open windows of opportunity with the government," right up to the moment its representatives get on the plane to Sweden. That characteristically positive diplomatic spirit, which the Coalition adopted from the outset, has already paid off in relations with some government members that range from begrudgingly to genuinely respectful.

The Coalition has many things to say and propose in Stockholm. And in Nicaragua. This umbrella organization emerged from the womb of the Mitch tragedy, and is the only one of three attempts by Nicaraguan NGOS in the past five years to coordinate their work in "a single vision of the country" that was not stillborn.

Even though only weeks old at the time of December's Special Consultative Group meeting in Washington in response to the Mitch emergency, the Coalition managed to draft an impressive discussion paper on reconstruction, called "Turning the Mitch Tragedy into an Opportunity for the Human and Sustainable Development of Nicaragua." It was the first time that so many diverse and dispersed NGOs in Nicaragua had succeeded in putting together such a holistic short-, medium- and long-range alternative proposal with a unified voice, which ran the gamut of economic, social, cultural, environmental and gender concerns. Most importantly, the Coalition offered the document not as a proposal to be defended to the death, but as the starting point for what it recognized was a necessary consensus-reaching process with the government and other social and political forces. Despite that Herculean effort, undertaken at the very same time that the involved NGOs were swamped with emergency relief tasks, the design of the Washington meeting and the attitude of the Nicaraguan government meant that the Coalition ended up as little more than an observer.

Among the many difficulties that explain the government's resistance to reaching some harmony with the NGO community, one of the most obvious is the Sandinista origins and leanings of many of the NGOs. The fact that a large number of them are small and cannot claim to speak for the grassroots base with which they work also makes it easier for the government to avoid having to come to any real understanding with them.

A revealing survey

The challenges that the Coalition set itself for the period between the Washington and Stockholm meetings were ambitious. One of several sizable tasks was to shape the Washington document, which basically enunciated areas of importance and categories of intention, into a genuine planning proposal that would include a national model of reconstruction and of institutionality to make that reconstruction possible. When the Coalition gets to Stockholm with this new document, it will be well armed to participate in a meeting that will have a much more open dynamic than the one in Washington, thanks largely to the donor agencies' attitudes. The document will not only have passed through the hands of many contributors within the coalition itself, but will be discussed in an open forum to which the media, government officials and others are invited.

The Coalition will also be taking to Stockholm a valuable diagnostic instrument based on a survey done in February of 10,529 households in 152 communities from the over 70 municipalities affected by Mitch, as well as perspectives culled from dozens of extensive interviews with locally-defined leaders from those communities. The aim of this first stage of a longer investigation was to measure qualitative rather than quantitative aspects of the hurricane's impact: felt losses, pending needs, emotional impacts, participation levels in the reconstruction efforts, perceptions about the initial emergency aid, etc. It also consciously sought out the perspective of the normally voiceless: women, young people and children.
Humberto Abaunza, one of those in charge of the survey, shared some of the raw data with envío. These first results are the underpinnings of a very original "social audit" project which has barely begun and may well prove to be the cement that keeps the Coalition alive and united for the coming period.

Even though the interviewees' impressions are expressed in cold, quantitative figures, they provide us with a better picture of the post-Mitch tragedy. Some of the percentages are in fact eloquent, for example that a full 52% of all inhabitants polled in the disaster areas are surviving on occasional piecemeal jobs that barely allow them to eat, while 32% of the direct victims are surviving by participating in basic reconstruction work in exchange for food. Both indicators show the fragility of people's situations in these zones and the total vacuum of long-term solutions.

Of those who suffered Mitch's devastation, 17% want to move elsewhere, which indicates a lack of confidence in the future and portends potentially uncontrollable migrations. In Estelí, Madriz and Nueva Segovia—departments traditionally beset by extreme poverty—this figure rises to 27%.

One indicator of the state's inefficiency and lack of coordination is that 56% of the hurricane victims declared that crucial emergency aid such as food did not reach them until eight days after the hurricane had passed, and 30% declared they had still received no aid whatsoever by the time of the survey. In contrast, an overall 62% of those polled who said they had suffered no human or material losses admitted that they did get assistance, a figure that climbs to 94% in the department of Boaco.

How do we explain these last, rather curious figures? Is it simply that among the very poor the line of need between those who lost a loved one, maybe their flimsy shack and/or their subsistence harvest and those who did not is too fine to be meaningful? Or could it be that the emergency assistance was given the same pre-electoral spin that government aid had already acquired in some rural zones even before Mitch? When asked whether the aid was handed out without political-ideological distinctions, the answers split right down the middle (42% felt it was evenhanded and 42% felt it was not). Even if only at the level of perceptions, this is an expression of the country's still rampant polarization.

The survey also took on subjective issues directly, for example by asking interviewees whether any members of their family had been "emotionally affected" by the hurricane, to which 20% said they believed that at least one relative had been "very affected." To a question about perceptions of violence in the post-Mitch period, nearly a quarter responded that they believed violence had increased. These are indicators of long-term problems that most figures never seem to reflect

The NGOs' financial audit

The Emergency Relief and Reconstruction Coalition is taking yet another unique initiative to Stockholm: a voluntary financial audit of nongovernmental organizations that channeled aid to hurricane victims between November 1998 and January 1999 and agreed to have their finances scrutinized to further the commitment to transparency. Aid figures show that about 55% of the official in-kind and monetary assistance that came into Nicaragua in that period was channeled through NGOs.

The audit will generate three products. One is an internal report for each NGO, which it is free to make public or not, as it sees fit. Another is an internal report for the international cooperation agencies that have national counterparts participating in the audit. And the third is a report for national publication that will show the total amount of both material and financial resources the NGOs disbursed in the first three post-Mitch months, together with their origins and destinations.

This novel and untested auditing initiative is naturally generating doubts, fears and even some resistance among a number of Nicaragua's NGOs. In some cases that may be because the disbursement was not totally on the up and up, but it is often because receipts and signatures were the last thing on anyone's list of priorities as they strove to get the incoming flood of aid out to the needy as quickly as possible. According to Abaunza, the audit "is really a political process more than a financial one, in that it is about convincing the NGOs that the country will benefit in the long haul with this exercise in transparency, even though some NGOs could lose out in the short run."

Foreign aid down prior to Mitch

According to official Secretariat of Foreign Cooperation figures as of December 1998, Nicaragua received US$20.4 million in official foreign aid in the last two months of 1998, following the passage of Hurricane Mitch. Multilateral financing institutions provided $5.3 million and the rest came in as bilateral donations from a variety of countries. Of the total, $2.9 million was hard currency and the other $17.5 was in kind. Somewhat over half of the total, $11.2 million, was channeled through NGOs—particularly major organizations such as the Red Cross—while $9.2 million came in through the government itself.

In the past few years, Nicaragua has seen a rapid drop in the flow of multilateral and bilateral donations. In 1997, total foreign aid was $416.5 million, some $200 million less than 1996. With the unexpected Mitch aid the total received in 1998 ended up being $428.6 million, still almost $200 million under what the government had programmed. In other words, were it not for the extraordinary donations that came in as emergency aid at the end of the year, Nicaragua would have received $10 million less in 1998 than in 1997, itself the lowest figure since 1990, the year Violeta Chamorro was voted into office.

The mere $9.2 million in new government aid in those first two post-Mitch months leads to the deduction that international cooperation decided to release resources already in the pipeline for approved projects, frozen due to conflicts between international cooperation and the government, rather than disburse significant new aid. In the face of the disaster the international community set aside its conflicts and let the committed aid flow.

The $20.4 million was for immediate emergency assistance. In Stockholm next month each country is expected to present detailed concrete proposals for the next stage—reconstruction. These will be evaluated one by one for purposes of assigning the overall amount that the participating donor countries had already pledged for the region as a whole in the December meeting.

What can be expected from Stockholm?

The Alemán government will plead for aid in the name of Nicaragua's thousands of Mitch victims, but so far it has left many of these people to their fate—among them those dutifully waiting in forgotten Cayanlipe, the post-Mitch region we focus on in this issue of envío, or those who survived the Posoltega horror, whom the world came to know and admire. Six months after the hurricane, these and many other people are still in virtually the same situation as when they climbed back down out of the trees they had been clinging to for days—with no present and few hopes for the future.
President Alemán will be arguing for aid for a hell he neither knows, nor shares nor is combating. In fact he will probably still be wearing his cocky smile particularly wide after such recent bouts of ostentation as the civil wedding party for one of his daughters in Quito, Ecuador, on March 27. A local pundit recently tagged him a rather unconvincing "beggar in a limousine."
The government is not just a little short on ethics; it also has technical weaknesses. It is reported to be taking no new projects to Sweden, just slightly more articulated versions of the very general ones it already presented in Washington. This suggests that Nicaragua will receive nothing more than the resources already pledged to it. But that will be enough for the government to blow its own triumphal horn when it returns from the meeting. And once that amount of aid begins to flow it will also be enough to be felt strongly in some areas of the country.

A Whole New Struggle

In the best of all possible worlds the demonstration effect of the NGOs' voluntary financial audit could have some positive fallout with the government. But getting those in government to accept monitoring to avoid the abuse of public resources for private enrichment assumes not only honesty but also farsightedness. Permitting this control to be actually exercised would be a huge democratic step forward in Nicaragua's political process in that it would imply an important change in how power is understood, participated in and shared.

Awareness of the consequences of corruption and the struggle for transparency are becoming central themes in countries all over the world and Nicaragua is no exception. But this change is very incipient and still quite strange to Nicaraguan society, which has always had a narrow conception of such issues. It has tended to confine them to the field of "morals," failing to see their economic implications much less their full-blown political ones.

Nicaraguan society did finally topple the structurally corrupt dynastic Somocista system, but mainly to gain the freedoms that had been denied. Both at the head of that successful struggle and afterward, the FSLN raised the banners of social justice and national sovereignty and its strongly state-centered model of government in the 1980s was regarded as refreshingly free of structural corruption. While sectors of society took up arms against the revolutionary government, they did so for a variety of other reasons, including aspects of its agrarian policies and the liberties it also limited. The US-financed war ended when Violeta Chamorro took office in 1990. Her administration immediately conceded many of the liberties that had been strangled due to that war, but it tolerated all kinds of corruption in its attempt to foster a market economy, which was far from free. At that time, since society was busy grappling with a post-war trauma that it had little understanding of, there was a tendency to ignore opposition charges about corruption as just part of the tiresome white noise of political polarization. With a cynicism appropriate to the times, many people acknowledged that Managua's municipal government was just as corrupt as Chamorro's central one, but they were less turned off by it because then-mayor Arnoldo Alemán "at least gets things done." Some even said it admiringly, offering it as a valid reason to vote for him for President in 1996.

Now in national office for two years, Alemán's Liberal government is beginning to lose most of those same supporters, largely because its corruption has become increasingly voracious and is frequently denounced in all media, not just Sandinista media. Social awareness is rapidly beginning to connect the dots between corruption in government and the economic prostration suffered by both the country and the majority of its citizens. Instead of saying, "Sure he steals, but he gets things done," they are now beginning to realize that "When he steals, he's stealing from me!" It is a major and wholesome change.

New presidential scheme against the nation's watchdog

In mid-February the Comptroller General's office (CGR) initiated an investigation into President Alemán's patrimony, based on his own admission that his personal wealth had increased by 900% between 1990 and 1996. As part of that investigation, the CGR requested clarifications and new information from the President. The request included both personal and family holdings, since the President himself had said that what belonged to his brothers belonged to him and vice versa. With various evasive arguments, the President has refused to make any further declarations.
The night of March 16, in a climate of increasing anticipation fanned by the media, many Nicaraguans sat glued to their radios and televisions, waiting to see what would happen in a meeting that was to take place between the President and the Comptroller. Three items were on the Comptroller's agenda: huge unspecified spending lines in the 1999 budget; the presidential patrimony; and a region-wide project to monitor the reconstruction aid that will start flowing in after Stockholm, which Jarquín himself has designed in his capacity as current president of the association of all governmental auditing offices in Central America and the Caribbean.
All three issues were controversial. The President insisted on keeping the budget lines unspecified so he could use them at his own discretion; he refused to inform the CGR about his holdings; and only days before he had created his own new national monitoring commission to audit the international reconstruction aid—personally naming its three "autonomous" members. He had first announced the pending formation of this commission on March 9, claiming that it had President Clinton's backing and would be financed by the Inter-American Development Bank. Since the commission's legal framework is very imprecise and its tasks greatly overlap those of both the CGR and the proposed regional auditing entity, suspicions seem quite well founded that it is just another of Alemán's interminable attempts to discredit the CGR, scuttle its work and install a parallel organization answering directly to him. Alemán plans to unveil his project in Stockholm, knowing full well that Jarquín will be there seeking funding for the initiative he has been working for months to assure that regional reconstruction aid is audited in a way that respects the legal framework of each country's particular auditing institutions.

The meeting between Jarquín and Alemán did not take place. When Jarquín and his team arrived, President Alemán, flanked by the most trusted members of his own team, was waiting to inform him that they wanted to meet with him alone. The comptroller naturally refused and left with his advisers. Everything suggests that the President only had one point on his own agenda: the plot that his personal presidential adviser, Jaime Morales Carazo, unveiled a few minutes later. Morales Carazo reported to the journalists who were conveniently there to cover the meeting that the Presidency had "discovered" contracts the CGR had signed with individuals and firms over the course of 1998 for numerous and varied services, among them a sizable and complex one with a fictitious individual. In so doing, the CGR had committed an illegal act.
Morales Carazo did not report the revelation with that protective, just-the-facts decorum top governmental figures usually use for potentially scandalous events, particularly while still in the accusatory stage. Quite the contrary, he intentionally used inflammatory language. As he presented it, the CGR, while requesting a budget hike for its proclaimed fight against corruption, had "squandered" nothing less than 17 million córdobas ($1.5 million), paying "ghosts" and real professional journalists and publicists of supposedly dubious reputation. He implied that the comptroller obviously had no business accusing anyone, and had been too "scared" to go into the meeting alone because he had "gotten wind" of the government's discovery.

Within a few hours Nicaraguans learned the real name of the "ghost" contracted under an elaborately faked identity in the only really problematic element of Morales Carazo's revelation. Of all people, it was Danilo Lacayo, former press secretary to President Chamorro, and more recently the popular host of Channel 2's morning TV talk show "Buenos días." For one year, the CGR had paid Lacayo a very high fee to do both publicity and presumably undercover investigation work.
The rampant speculation that immediately surrounded the unexpected CGR-Lacayo alliance, the presumed irregularity in the leaking of CGR documents to the Presidency, and the righteous indignation of other journalists and non-journalists whose real names appeared on the list Morales Carazo made public caused the presidential plot to quickly escape the control of those who had cobbled it together. Three separate judicial processes were only part of the fallout.
The CGR filed suit against Morales Carazo, Lacayo and Néstor Abaunza, the latter a former top-level CGR official, and the one who had actually signed the contract with Lacayo. The Office of Attorney General, which is as answerable to the Presidency as Alemán would like the CGR to be, filed suit against the Comptroller and his team for a variety of illegal acts, including illicit association to commit a crime, falsification of documents and fraud. Last but not least, the National Police, which did its own investigation, accused Danilo Lacayo and Abaunza of usurpation of functions and improper use of the fictitious name (numerous identification documents had been falsified). It was still not clear how this plot would play itself out—politically more than judicially—by the time this issue of envío closed.

Referring to his political arrest in the early years of the Sandinista government, Comptroller General Jarquín said in a tense press conference on March 17, "I've already been in jail once, and I'm willing to go to jail for this cause. Today's fight is no longer for democracy or for freedom, as in the past. The struggle now is for transparency in public administration and against corruption." He seemed still perplexed by the President's new attack the previous night, suggesting that he may have been caught unaware by the details of Lacayo's ruse.

Then and in ensuing days, Jarquín admitted that the CGR had committed an error in signing a contract for some $3,000 a month for Lacayo's services using a fictitious personality for what Lacayo claimed were "security reasons." Nonetheless, the Presidency has blown the incident out of all proportion, since the CGR's mistake caused the state no great economic damage and provided the comptroller general no personal enrichment. To use the more colorful description that began to make its rounds on the Managua grapevine, "Jarquín put his foot in it but not his hands." Deputy Comptroller Claudia Frixione, whose head the government would also like to see roll, insisted that the error only shows that the CGR "is not a perfect institution," but that this should not prevent it from continuing to do its work.

A budget far from transparent

The presidential scandal mongering shared one immediate objective with the other recent plots hatched against the CGR: to draw attention away from the long-postponed 1999 budget debate. The CGR had been insisting repeatedly that the total of 1.6 billion córdobas (some $150 million)—a full 20% of the budget—in two overall spending lines earmarked for the Presidency and the Central Bank be itemized so that these funds could not be used with utter discretion.

In anticipation of election campaigns incumbent parties all over the world include spending items in the national budget for electoral purposes, such as salary increases for state workers or high-visibility public investment projects. The least the citizenry has the right to expect, however, is that these items appear appropriately detailed in the budget, so that taxpayers have some idea where their money is going. It is hard to imagine that anyone would seriously criticize Nicaragua's Liberal government for increasing teachers' squalid salaries in the 1999 budget, for example, even if it were for electoral ends in next year's campaign; just about any excuse for this overdue and eminently fair wage increase would be accepted. It is not the electoral objectives presumably contained within Alemán's unspecified budget lines that merit the strong criticism so much as the discretion with which they will be assigned.

A plot hatched in fear

The Presidency had a second immediate goal in blowing up the illegal aspects of the Lacayo contract. It was also a roundabout way to nip in the bud the CGR's investigation into the impressive increase in Alemán's patrimony. But it seems to have backfired. If anything, it only strengthened Jarquín's resolve. On March 22, a bloodied but unbowed comptroller general announced the opening of a summary process against President Alemán for refusing to report on the increases in his personal and family holdings after various requests. As a result of this process, the President could be sanctioned by the Office of Comptroller General of the Republic.

Last but not least is the more long-term objective that Alemán has been after for many months. He is determined to create massive confusion in the public mind about the CGR's work and about the figure of the comptroller general, thus sowing doubt and suspicion that will permit either Jarquín's dismissal or his neutralization through a reform of the institution's legal underpinnings. Reforming the CGR's organizational law would mean not having to remove Jarquín from office, the political cost of which is mounting by the day. Jarquín's fervor to help institutionalize good governance would simply be diluted within a collegial management structure similar to that of the Supreme Electoral Council—though even more bipartisan and less pluralistic. In such a structure, Jarquín would be surrounded by new Liberal and Sandinista "comptrollers" who have no serious interest in professional, nonpartisan auditing work.

his solution would keep up the appearances of appropriate "institutionality," while introducing new people into the institution that would make it totally inoperable. Probably not coincidentally, legislators from the Christian Way party together with other independents who have become presidential loyalists, announced on March 17, the day after the government's revelations, that they had just introduced precisely such a reform bill into the National Assembly. Instead of the rumored five-person co-management team (two Sandinistas, two Liberals and Jarquín, who is a Social Christian), however, they proposed seven people, who would be formally chosen by the National Assembly.
The President wants to "resolve" this issue before the Stockholm meeting, where issues of transparency and governability could affect the amount and kind of aid that Nicaragua receives. This rush could explain the extremely clumsy handling of the "ghost plot," which did not go unnoticed by the international community, although the government denies anything is wrong and insists that "the trust of the friendly governments is still in place."
It's not true. The international community's representatives in Nicaragua know perfectly well what's going on and defend the functions of the comptroller general's office. The President's behavior has seriously damaged his government's image with the ambassadors of the European countries that will be represented in Stockholm and even with the Inter-American Development bank, until now a solid ally of the Liberal government.

And the costs are not just international. The results of the presidential war against the comptroller general's office have also polluted the air in governmental circles, where fear is growing about the results of the municipal elections in 2000. That fear is already so great that the governing party's political commissars are openly asking for campaign contributions even in ministries run by non-Liberal technocrats, such as Health, Trade and Promotion or Agriculture and Forestry, on the unstated but fully understood threat that failure to contribute could cost people their jobs. Top officials are not exempt from the pressure. Alemán's Constitutionalist Liberal Party is nervous and is drawing lines in the sand: either you're with me or you're against me.

From spectators to protagonists

Alemán never expected the CGR's watchdog work with state resources to be so consistent, but he has matched that consistency. Since taking office in 1997, Alemán has not let a minute go by without engaging in his attempt to hinder, co-opt, disparage and/or neutralize the comptroller general's office, including by controlling—or bribing—other state institutions. National Assembly bills, decisions by the Supreme Court and the lower courts, omissions by the attorney general's office, pressure and other initiatives by state companies and its autonomous entities are all mobilized in the multi-theater war that the President has unleashed with such fervor. The comptroller's office has been spied upon and has worked under constant threat.

Informed daily by the media, society has watched all these complex skirmishes and political battles—always couched in judicial justifications that are hard to sort out—and has ended up indignant, uncomfortable or indifferent, depending on the case. In that range of reactions, passivity and helplessness have predominated in a political culture that has had no experience in its history that would teach it to embrace the value of laws and institutions, and is thus not very accustomed to defending its rights by civic means.
For these and many other reasons, the march by some fifteen thousand Nicaraguans through Managua's streets the afternoon of March 25 to demonstrate against governmental corruption and in support of Jarquín and the work he and his team have done could turn out to be very important. It introduces a significant new variable into the relatively stagnant correlation of forces that has existed for some time. A group of spectators has finally jumped onto the stage.
The march, which also had branch events in a number of other departments, was both a political event and a symbolic one, and like all rituals, it had something of a past, a present and a future. It evoked a past that has been in the shadows for some years now—the tradition of street mobilizations. It suggested a future—in its incipient defense of democratic institutionality. And it reflected the present—in which growing consensus is being forged around the struggle against government corruption and the concrete individuals who have taken on the challenge to confront it with their own example from within the institutions themselves.

At the final rallying site, Comptroller General Jarquín addressed the multitude. Moved by their support, this normally prim, bespectacled and imperturbable official gave a speech uncharacteristically charged with emotion. Jarquín sought words to link governmental corruption with the impoverishment that is affecting the majority of Nicaraguans and with the population's most strongly felt social problems. He introduced two slogans into his speech—"Down with corruption now!" and "Each person a comptroller!"—then carefully, pedagogically, explained what they meant to him. Invoking God on several occasions, he swore with raised hand that he would "go on serving" Nicaraguans from his post as comptroller general "or from any other post."

A call from below answered across political lines

The idea for the march came collectively from the radio station La Primerísima, its radical Sandinista director William Grigsby and listeners to Grigsby's own late-night political commentary program "Sin Fronteras." It only took a week to turn the idea into reality, which reveals the power that radio still has, and in turn calls into question the almost blind and mechanical faith that today's political elite cede to the world of appearances created by television images. The tail does not wag the dog nearly as much as they would like to think.

Extremely few such mobilizations have ever truly emerged and gelled at the base without depending on party machinery for their success, either in recent years or indeed during the revolution, when street demonstrations were the bread and butter of society's political life. In this fresh case, self-convocation worked; the word got around in just a few days, and thousands responded. It is a clear sign of the erosion of traditional organizational forms, the crisis of old leadership styles and the need to find new collective political expressions.
Even though a journalistic commentator identified with Sandinismo's radical wing was the first to call the march, a wide spectrum of opponents to the government from various parties and tendencies joined it together with numerous unaffiliated individuals. The common denominator was indignation at the government's flagrant corruption, ostentation and insensitivity. This leads very diverse analysts to suggest that the march could prefigure the kind of national opposition alliance needed to confront government corruption through all civic means. The grassroots Sandinistas who participated in the march that afternoon represented sentiments no longer always identified with the FSLN. They were mainly Sandinistas who are unhappy with the FSLN-government pact and those who long for a political and economic alternative, which no one is offering today. No one in the FSLN leadership could have halted that mobilization of thousands of Sandinistas who repudiated the government and applauded Agustín Jarquín alongside thousands of non-Sandinistas.

A long, slow, painful process

The government has erroneously understood "governability" to mean zero social organization and zero protest. President Alemán has tried to attain this brand of governability through a pact with FSLN general secretary Daniel Ortega and a sector of the FSLN leadership that sees this issue the same way. But governability is much more than what the government seems to believe and would like to make everyone else believe. The government's own corruption could itself end up increasing ungovernability, and the banner of the struggle for transparency that brought so many into the streets on March 25 could spark new civic marches and many other non-violent initiatives by the citizenry. It is a banner that is only just making its debut, yet is one that attracts people and unites them. This is the lesson that last month's march bequeathed the government and its advisers, who have spent over two years playing with fire in their desire to get rid of the Office of Comptroller General of the Republic.

If the march does turn out to be a genuine first step for a society that is no longer organized but may be organizing again to defend itself from its dishonest and insensitive politicians, some things could begin to change in Nicaragua. But it will always be a long, long march forward, in a process that, like all vital processes, is also slow, difficult and painful.

A citizenry taking ownership

The essential problem is mainly political, notwithstanding the legal-judicial robes (legislation, commissions, accusations, revelations) in which the Presidency has dressed its decision to stop the CGR for public opinion purposes.

The civic march represents the awakening of a political factor that could begin to decisively alter the current correlation of forces. What happened in Paraguay only a few days after the march in Managua, and what happened in Ecuador a few months earlier were the result of a new Latin American political atmosphere. In both countries, official corruption scandals, institutional crises and social mobilizations combined to bring down elected governments.
"We are seeing a citizenry that is increasingly claiming ownership," commented Agustín Jarquín with respect to the events in Paraguay and, closer to home, those in Managua. He used the word enseñorearse—a Castilian word that suggests the fashionable English term "to get empowered." Both the English and the Spanish expressions reflect something historically new, a coordinate in which the reality of our time is being inscribed in both the powerful North and the weakened South. The winds of this new reality are beginning to whistle even around this tiny corner of the continent, pushing us onto our own long march.

Lesser Skirmishes in the President's War against the Comptroller

With the both personal and institutional war President Arnoldo Alemán has unleashed against Comptroller General Agustín Jarquín reaching new heights, and with the populace increasingly attentive to it, the media has dedicated a lot of space to covering all its skirmishes. Below are some of the second-tier ones that took place in March.
The public telecommunications company ENITEL, which is currently in the process of being sold off, is the most important state enterprise to be privatized in the past seven years. Privatizing ENITEL is one of the central conditions of the structural adjustment program imposed on Nicaragua by the multilateral financing institutions. What has turned out to be a very long and drawn-out process should have been wrapped up by May 31, but it ran into a critical snag on March 22, when the comptroller general's office decided to annul a $100 million contract to install 100,000 new lines that ENITEL signed exactly a year ago with Construcciones Centroamericanas, a subsidiary of the transnational telecommunications firm MasTec.

The CGR based its decision on the determination that the project's high cost was injurious to the state. Furthermore, the contract did not have the CGR's prior endorsement, which must be requested when the normal bidding process is sidestepped for some reason. The contract is so favorable to MasTec, which owned by the US-Cuban Mas Canosa family's investment group, that it can only be interpreted as representing the payment President Alemán owed now-deceased Cuban counterrevolutionary Jorge Mas Canosa for his electoral campaign support and other probable favors. President Alemán's loyal attorney general, who was responsible for taking the case to court to get the contract annulled, refused to do so.

Since Telefónica Española withdrew from the privatization competition around the same time as the CGR announced its decision about the contract, this left Mexico's Telmex as the only bidder. As a result, the CGR also informed ENITEL that it would have to declare the bidding process null and void and put out a new call for bids.

Presidency tries end run around CGR
At the beginning of March, the executive branch sent the National Assembly a bill that would allow the President to buy, contract or lease goods and services directly, without requiring the authorization of the legislative branch or the endorsement of the comptroller general's office. President Alemán had attempted a similar but ultimately unsuccessful ploy in late September 1998, when it tried to get the Assembly to repeal the law that regulates the disposal of state goods.

The new bill on administrative contracting proposed by the Presidency concedes the executive branch almost full discretion over the acquisition and use of public goods and leaves the way clear for corruption through influence peddling, a crime still not even listed in Nicaragua's penal code or other laws. The Assembly has also had a bill against corruption by public functionaries before it for study and approval since early February.

It never rains, but pours
On March 16, only hours before the aborted meeting between Jarquín and Alemán and the scandalous announcement that followed, the National Assembly's Anti-Corruption Commission, dominated by Liberal representatives, finally issued to the Assembly plenary a recommendation regarding the comptroller general that had been pending for months. The report, which was drafted in an anomalous manner, came in response to a series of charges the attorney general filed against the comptroller general on behalf of the Presidency last October. Not surprisingly the commission's recommendation was that Jarquín be stripped of his immunity to stand trial.

The report made its way to the plenary agenda on April 9, and after heated debate was rejected by a narrow margin of votes.

Three days earlier the Assembly board had created a special commission, also controlled by Liberals, following the "revelation" of the CGR contract with Danilo Lacayo. This will surely end in another attempt to remove Jarquín's immunity and take him to court.

The speed with which this most recent case was addressed was notable, and contrasts with other cases in which the withdrawal of some legislator's immunity has been requested. The most notorious of these is the one involving former President Daniel Ortega. His adopted stepdaughter, Zoilamérica Narváez, is still waiting for a response from the National Assembly ten months after requesting that Ortega be stripped of his immunity to stand trial on her charges of incest and sexual abuse of a minor.

President consults Supreme Court
Seeking to drag the Supreme Court of Justice ex post facto into its latest scheme against the CGR, President Alemán consulted the Court on March 22 on which law would have primacy, the Constitution or the Law of Moral Integrity of Public Functionaries, which regulates constitutional precepts. According to this law, public officials must keep their declaration of probity permanently up to date, reporting to the CGR any increases or reductions of their patrimony while in office. Alemán has refused to provide this information to the CGR, despite repeated requests. Six of the twelve Supreme Court justices voted the obvious answer to this simplistic question--the Constitution has primacy over any regular law. Three other justices were absent and the remaining three offered more nuanced opinions. Prestigious jurists in Nicaragua strongly criticized the Court for having played into the President's hands, allowing itself to be consulted on a topic that was a judicial "platitude" with the single objective of providing him with a new tool for justifying his resistance to CGR scrutiny.

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