Crossroads at the Century’s End
Nicaragua's current government, which the population has labeled the most corrupt in the country's history, and which had the audacity to imprison the Comptroller General of the Republic yet is defenseless before the territorial claims of
Colombia and Honduras, enjoys its main--virtually its only--support in the leadership of the FSLN. A pretty pathetic way
to ring out the old century.
The recent events that closed the century and the millennium for Nicaragua have the quality of historic crossroads. The President of the Republic successfully culminated his political revenge against Comptroller General Agustín Jarquín by throwing him in jail, dumbfounding the international community working in Nicaragua and spurring it to pressure the government to a degree never before seen publicly. The President's foolhardy error put the government and the entire society at a crossroads.
Yet not even this blunder or the tense situation it has created led the FSLN leadership to try to wring more benefits for society out of its pact with the weakened government or even to improve some of its more self-serving elements. Quite the opposite, the National Assembly approved a package of constitutional reforms and electoral law changes that benefit only the two power groups involved in the pact. This situation, too, puts Nicaraguan society at a crossroads.
The governments of Colombia and Honduras seem to know better than the FSLN how to take advantage of the institutional disorder, weakness and indolence that has been reigning for some time in Nicaragua, of which the FSLN-PLC pact and the President's war with the Office of Comptroller General (CGR) are just two of the more visible signs. As a result, they decided to take another step in the appropriation of 130,000 square kilometers of Nicaragua's maritime platform. This put the government in a diplomatic crossroads armed only with an arsenal of patriotic speeches, and put the entire country in a crossroads with no easy way out.
Alemán's vengeful follyIn the early evening of November 10, only hours before last month's envío went to press, the most improbable thing imaginable actually happened: Comptroller General Agustín Jarquín Anaya was jailed. After eight months of a judicial process stacked against the comptroller, the National Police apprehended Jarquín and TV news commentator Danilo Lacayo, found guilty of fraud against the state for Lacayo's use of a false identity when contracted by the CGR to do freelance publicity and investigative journalism. Lacayo declared himself a “political prisoner” and as he got into the patrol car emphatically declared that “the man who is currently President is an autocrat and will only get as far as we allow him to go.” For his part, Jarquín said, “Justice will prevail and the people of Nicaragua will have a better future, without poverty and with prosperity. Let God's will be done.”
Jarquín's capture, in the CGR offices, became the political event of the year. Supportive applause and shouts against corruption accompanied the comptroller, who was taken off to jail wrapped in the blue and white national flag, images that Nicaragua will not forget easily. The next day, the Nicaraguan Human Rights Center (CENIDH) took the first photograph of Jarquín in his cell; it became the photo of the year. Ten days later, a poll showed that Jarquín's popularity had risen notably: from 29% in August 1999 to 45% three months later.
Analyses, pronouncements and declarations, both national and international, began to be pile up immediately, all of them underscoring the injustice committed, the political character of the sentence and the folly of the government. In his war against the Office of Comptroller General and against its chief, President Alemán had gone too far this time.
Legally and ethically condemnableBoth the judicial sentence, with its weak and disputable legal argument, and the manner in which the comptroller was captured were totally disproportionate to the charges against him. The state had suffered no losses whatever as a result of his actions, which is far more than can be said of the activities of the majority -- if not all -- of the top government officials that the comptroller has accused of administrative and penal responsibilities, providing abundant and obvious evidence. Those cases cost the state millions in losses, but none of the accused were ever sanctioned or even warned, much less jailed, and all are still at their posts.
The mass of irregularities that accompanied the presidential scheme against Jarquín and culminated in the trial, sentence and arrest warrant, reveal this case as eminently political and legally and ethically condemnable. They also highlight the government's objectives: put a stop to the CGR's overseeing of public finances and sabotage Jarquín's eventual presidential candidacy, tarnishing his political dossier with this case and other charges they will try to hang on him when he gets out of jail.
Donor pressure mountsThe President went ahead with his plan against the comptroller at a particularly ticklish moment: the International Monetary Fund and World Bank had just begun to condition Nicaragua's entry into the HIPC Initiative -- which will pardon a significant part of the country's foreign debt -- to its fulfillment of parameters of governance and transparency. It was the first time that these international financing institutions had ever included such conditions. “Institutions such as the IMF, which are heartless bodies, have begun to realize the relationship between ethics and international trade,” commented Deputy Comptroller General Claudia Frixione, who has been filling in for Jarquín since his incarceration.
The new rules by which the IMF and World Bank have begun to play render Alemán's move inexplicable, revealing on a new scale the irresponsible way he conducts government. The first diplomatic reactions came within 24 hours. Finland's commercial attaché, who is also currently the EU representative, called the comptroller's imprisonment “a hard blow to the governance of the country.” She made clear her concern about the fact that “a man who has put up such a strong fight against corruption is being sent to jail in Nicaragua, which a Transparency International survey singled out as the second most corrupt country in the region.” Vice President Bolaños immediately criticized the diplomat's declarations as “interference.”
That same day, the so-called Group of Five (Germany, Spain, Sweden, France and the United States, plus Japan), which are responsible for following up on the commitments assumed by the Central American countries in Stockholm, announced that the pardoning of Nicaragua's debt had been jeopardized. The group demanded a “rapid and holistic” solution to the conflict and criticized the project to create a collegial comptroller general's office cooked up in the FSLN-Government pact.
The following day it was the Italian ambassador's turn to express disapproval. “For three years we have been fighting in Geneva, Washington and Stockholm to strengthen Nicaragua's institutionality and it is sad that the man who has struggled inside the country to strengthen it today finds himself in prison.” He said his declarations could not be called “interference,” but were rather a response to the population's clamor, backing his claim by referring to a survey done by envío-IDESO on October 16-17 on Managua residents' perception of governmental corruption and the CGR's work. (The Institute of Surveys and Opinion Polls -IDESO- is part of the Central American University.) The ambassador specifically referred to the following question: “What do you think that the embassies of countries that help Nicaragua and the international agencies should do to prevent the government's acts of corruption?” to which 69.4% responded that the diplomats should exercise more pressure than they do now. In that same poll, 44.8% said they believe that Arnoldo Alemán is the most corrupt President in the country's history, a response rate that ratifies the 45.2% given the same question in a similar envío-IDESO poll done in March 1999.
European financing has already begun to dry up, at least temporarily. The German government decided to freeze two cooperation projects with the government of Nicaragua valued at $13 million, to supply drinking water and forestry protection in Jinotega, Matagalpa and Corinto. The amount frozen represents half of Germany's aid to Nicaragua over the next three years.
On December 9, the Swiss government froze its contributions to an international fund aimed at alleviating Nicaragua's foreign debt service payments, arguing that governance is not being observed in Nicaragua.
The Swedish government suspended two components of one of its bilateral social promotion projects in 30 municipalities of León, Estelí, Matagalpa and Nueva Segovia, because it judged that the government was politicizing them in favor of the party in power. A Swedish Embassy press release stated that "politicizing tendencies in the project's management and content are incompatible with the collaboration of the Government of Sweden and UNICEF and limit the participation of actors at the local level, which in turn makes it more difficult to achieve the program goals.” These projects benefited the municipalities to the tune of a million dollars a year.
Alemán: As with PinochetThe argument wielded by government officials, starting with the President himself, that Jarquín's imprisonment was the expression of an independent judicial branch decision and that the executive branch had not interfered before and could not do so now was implicitly shown up as a lie in a document issued by the European diplomats (see box at end of article).
No one in Nicaragua believes that the comptroller's case is merely judicial; independent of their views of the comptroller's work, or even of the merits of the accusation against him, Nicaraguans recognize that it is being played out as an unfortunate political issue. Nonetheless, President Alemán found the audacity on several occasions to compare his “limitations” with respect to Nicaragua's judicial branch to those of the Spanish President in relation to Judge Baltasar Garzón in the Pinochet case. Does he really believe he is deluding anyone?
It could hold up entry into the HIPCEuropean bilateral cooperation agencies were not the only ones to speak out. The International Monetary Fund and the Inter-American Development Bank (IDB) also made public statements consistent with their new” rules of the game.” IDB representative Martín Stabile declared that these new developments were putting international cooperation “at risk” and IMF representative Joaquín Harnack stated that the Fund, together with all the donors “are anxious to find a solution to demonstrate that the laws will govern in Nicaragua and thus expedite the work that the Office of the Comptroller General has pending.”
These declarations gave continuity to the “new conditionalities” expressed by the IMF mission that visited Managua in September. These conditions have put the government in an uncomfortable spot, leading it to repeatedly declare its surprise at this unexpected change in the game rules.
On November 19 President Alemán had to publicly recognize that Nicaragua's entry into the HIPC initiative and the ensuing pardoning of the country's foreign debt, which he had celebrated so pompously—and prematurely, as it turns out—on September 16, would probably be delayed by a year and a half or more.
Nicaragua is not viableInternational cooperation has invested so much in Nicaragua in this last decade of the century, these ten years of peace and transition to democracy, that it has the authority to complain. It had hoped that once peace was achieved, Nicaragua, with an extraordinary flow of outside resources and of support for the country's reconstruction, would transform itself into a viable country with a sustainable economy, thus being able to reduce its dependence on outside aid. International cooperation has clung to these expectations for over nine years, but there is little light yet at the end of a seemingly interminable tunnel.
The economy has achieved an average annual growth of 4% between 1994 and 1999, showing that the trend is toward recovery. Despite this, however, it has still not managed to recover its 1975 levels. Nicaragua is thus going into the new millennium with a quarter of a century lost, and the trend is the same with respect to per-capita production. Nicaragua produced more food per inhabitant 25 years ago than it does today, and this pie, reduced by the economic crisis, has to be divided among a population that is one of the fastest growing in the world.
An abysmal gapDo exports finance imports? Not even close. Although Nicaragua's trade gap began to narrow some in the mid-1990s when coffee prices rose and the country's exports began to recover, the deficit took off again in the first two years of the Alemán government due to excessive import consumption. The country hit the highest trade deficit in its history in 1998: US$900 million, equivalent to 38% of its gross domestic product (GDP). Commenting on the relationship of Nicaragua's trade deficit to its GDP, Francisco Aguirre Sacasa, Nicaragua's ambassador to the United States, noted that it puts Nicaragua even below Haiti, the most impoverished country in the hemisphere, whose deficit equals 23% of its GDP. Nicaragua is in even worse shape in this regard than Africa's two poorest countries, Burundi and Rwanda, whose respective deficits are 20% and 21% of their GDPs.
If international cooperation's objective was to build a viable economy, the failure is evident, because Nicaragua's dependence on external resources has increased rather than decreased.
For some years the trade gap was largely financed by foreign aid, but the drop in aid has left family remittances from the half-million Nicaraguans living in Costa Rica and the nearly quarter of a million in the United States substantially financing import consumption. Those remittances have become Nicaragua's most important source of income. It is this money earned by the poor abroad and received by the poor inside the country that explains the country's relative social and economic stability.
And the peace dividend?Of all the expectations generated by the signing of the peace agreement, none has panned out in any noteworthy way. The country's economic and social recovery has been excessively slow, much slower than might have been expected. It took five years for the country even to begin to grow, despite exceptional levels of aid and, as mentioned, the country's dependence on outside funding is still enormous. There is some macroeconomic stability now, inflation has been drastically reduced and the armed conflict is over, but those results are a mere shadow of what the international community expected at the beginning of the 1990s.
The hope was that the drastic cutback in military spending starting with the end of the war in 1990 would free up funds for social programs, but that didn't happen either. The peace dividend was basically spent on stabilizing the economy, controlling inflation, reducing the enormous domestic debt and paying the interest on the foreign debt. Not only did the peace dividend not pump up social spending, it was not even used to reinsert the foot soldiers of the 1980s war back into the economy and into production. Those veterans have been the big losers of the 1990s.
The tragedy is also an opportunityWith all these things left undone, Nicaragua will be dragging a lot of old baggage into the new century. The institutional crisis that culminated with prison for Comptroller General Jarquín is such a serious crossroads for the government and society that it could end up having a positive effect -- the opportunity for a vigorous reaction that could lead to bedrock changes over the long haul, not just superficial ones.
Nicaragua cannot go on like this. There is no space in the global world for a model of government like the one Arnoldo Alemán wants to impose, with institutions that despite their formal independence are really just mouthpieces for the most retrograde authoritarian presidential style.
This is what the international community is diplomatically reminding us by insisting on a change. It is not the most plausible of scenarios, but in a country that has become so extremely dependent on external resources, the real correlation of forces in a case as eminently political as this one will inevitably bring the contradictions between international cooperation and the government more into the open.
It would be truly regrettable if Nicaraguan society does not react strongly enough in this crossroads, does not add its own participatory and creative pressure, with its own statements and national tools, demanding democratic institutionality. That kind of reaction will require a stretch, because our society has only just discovered the term democratic institutionality, and has certainly never experienced it. The closest it has come to seeing what might be implied has been the work of the comptroller general's office, a brief candle that the Alemán-Ortega pact will soon dramatically snuff out.
The jailing of the comptroller has sounded a shrill alert. If he is released only to clean up the government's record, leaving his own tarnished enough that he cannot hold public office, then nothing will have changed. The country, and everyone in it will have lost yet another opportunity to alter our erratic course.
The pact remained immuneThe jailing of the comptroller and the general rejection to the government's political vengeance in national and international public opinion represented an unexpected opportunity for the FSLN leadership to create some distance from the government -- assuming it would like to act with good political judgment and a sense of nation. It was a chance to put the pact with the PLC on hold, or even to rectify some of its more indecorous points, such as the decision to give Arnoldo Alemán a seat as legislative representative at the end of his term in office, without having to face any democratic electoral vote, or to turn the comptroller general's office into a collegial body of five comptrollers elected by the inner circles of Alemán and Ortega.
A group of some 30 FSLN legislators, however, were awake enough to see the opportunity represented by the political error of having jailed the comptroller. They at least spoke publicly of the need to revise the pact, no matter how far advanced the negotiations were. But all it took was Daniel Ortega's return from a tour of Libya to get everything, or almost everything, back under control. Not a word of the pact was changed, despite the government's vulnerability.
On November 19, the PLC and FSLN pact negotiators presented the constitutional reform bill to the National Assembly, and on December 9 the changes were approved in the first round (any changes to the Constitution must be approved in two consecutive legislative years). Nine of the 36 FSLN representatives did not sign the bill, but only 4 of them vigorously challenged it in debate and refused to approve it in the plenary vote. It is expected that by February of next year the 15 reformed articles will already have been approved in the second round and incorporated into the Constitution.
Prior to the floor vote, various Nicaraguan organizations took the opportunity offered them by the National Assembly to express their views about the reforms. Among them was the Nicaraguan Human Rights Center (CENIDH), which presented its extensive comments in writing. CENIDH concluded that the pact represented “the institutionalization of a massive violation of Nicaraguans' human rights.” It also considered that the only explanation for the reform increasing the half-plus-one vote currently required to strip the President of immunity to two-thirds is to “make it impossible for any citizen to take penal action against the President in the face of the generalized corruption he is involved in. This reform demonstrates Arnoldo Alemán's fear of appearing in court.” CENIDH added that “it can rightfully be inferred from this that, as a counterpart or payment, the Liberals have pledged to impede any attempt to strip legislator Daniel Ortega Saavedra of his immunity, which also reveals his own fear of responding in court."
FSLN: Pathetic coincidencesAlemán's war against the comptroller's office shows that the most important of the Ortega-Alemán pact's various meanings—all of them negative—is the support the FSLN leadership is providing the nationally and internationally discredited Liberal government, even though it is the most corrupt in Nicaraguan history. This fact is central to any understanding of what is going in Nicaragua today.
In this context, the FSLN leadership's public siding with the government at the time of the comptroller's detention was pathetic. Tomás Borge claimed that the FSLN is analyzing this case “only in legal terms,” that the party backs institutions and not individuals, and that it views the pressures of the international organizations on the government as interference and the fruit of “neoliberal imperialism.” Daniel Ortega chimed in to assure that the FSLN is not backing any activity in support of the comptroller because it doesn't want to “politicize” the case and to accuse “the right” of manipulating Jarquín, as if it were not “the right” in government that jailed him, in a clearly politicized decision.
The “reasons” for the pactThe Ortega-Alemán alliance is based on clear—as well as some obscure—economic and business interests, but is publicly defended by Ortega and his inner circle on the understanding that this accord will enable the FSLN win back the presidency in 2001. This idea is particularly easy to sell to the poorest sector of the population that is still wedded to the myth of the revolution and its historic leaders, a segment that represents up to 25% of the voters.
Liberals defend the alliance in international forums and to the international agencies as a sign of the” governance” they require, and explain nothing to their own grassroots base. National Assembly president and prominent Liberal Iván Escobar Fornos reiterated this line upon receiving the pacted legislative reforms: “It is an agreement of governance,” he intoned, “that is going to bring stability and investments, because it is assumed by the two most important political forces.” This argument, in turn, is very saleable to certain sectors of the international community.
Sandinismo: challenged by the pactNo expression of organized society, no public opinion poll, no pressure from the FSLN's own grassroots base—which has little in common with the PLC base—was able to put a stop to the pact or even get it substantially modified. The pact is an attack on the fragile national institutionality and incipient social pluralism, but it is consummated. This puts society at a crossroads.
Nicaragua is entering the new century with all the ingredients for an excluding regime with characteristics similar to those that plunged it into such backwardness and violence over sixty years ago—the nearly half-century-long Somoza dynasty.
The international community can exert only so much weight to influence this reality. The pact is really a challenge for the national community. Only Nicaraguans have a chance at stopping its worst consequences, and they can only do it by patiently organizing the indignation that the pact has triggered in the thinking population, extending this consciousness to the rest of the population, and translating it into concrete alternative actions. It corresponds to Sandinistas who oppose the pact, within the FSLN ranks or now outside, to take a leading role. This will demand sacrifices, honesty, grassroots work to generate an organized consciousness and a capacity to establish alliances with a sense of nation. Next year's municipal elections, if they end up happening, could be a test of the potentials developed at this historic juncture.
The doubts about whether the municipal elections will actually be held grow out of the approval of insufficient funds in next year's general budget to enable the Supreme Electoral Council make the necessary preparations. It would appear that the government prefers postponing them, to avoid revealing its party's erosion and thus damaging its chances in the presidential elections the following year. Notwithstanding these doubts, the first “center” alliance was officially announced on November 20 in the municipality of Telica. It is called the Municipal Alliance for the Development of Telica and is made up of five parties: Conservatives, Pan y Fuerza (a Social Democratic party), Camino Cristiano and Justicia Nacional (both Evangelists), and the Sandinista Renovation Movement (MRS). Its mayoral candidate will be Nelson Escoto, a Sandinista from the MRS. The alliance presented itself to the locals as “a means through which the people can act and express themselves, fighting tenaciously against corruption in public administration.”
Conflict with HondurasIt was in this already conflictive context that the dispute with Honduras flared. Choosing to violate the spirit of Central American integration and the letter of its agreements and institutions, Honduras allied itself with Colombia to grab an extensive strip of Nicaragua's maritime platform.
On December 1 a special Honduran government delegate informed the government of Nicaragua that on December 3 Honduras' Congress would ratify—as it in fact did—the Ramírez-López Treaty, signed in 1986 by the Colombian and Honduran governments and backed by the United States, to isolate Nicaragua's Atlantic Coast. The treaty establishes Colombian jurisdiction over 100,000 square kilometers of the maritime platform around the island of San Andrés and its adjacent keys, insular territories that Nicaragua has long claimed as its own with significant justification since they are far nearer the Nicaraguan coast. For its complicity, Honduras would get another 30,000 square kilometers of the same platform. The zone in question is rich in fishing resources and almost certainly in petroleum deposits
Despite the high-pitched tone adopted by the government in its patriotic speeches, the crisis illustrated the lack of a sense of nation among a significant group of rightwing Nicaraguan politicians. In 1986, when the US government was financing and masterminding the war against Nicaragua's Sandinista government and using Honduras as its platform, it counseled these same politicians, most of them in exile in the United States at the time, to support the signing of the treaty as a way to attack Nicaragua. Thirteen years later, these politicians, now in office, are alarmed by the treaty's ratification and find themselves called upon to defend Nicaragua.
The conflict also revealed a distortion of the term patria—homeland—which is assuming an increasingly hollow ring. The fuss about the loss of a zone of the sea to which virtually no Nicaraguan fishing or coastguard boat has ever had access has been a bit disproportionate compared to the amount of productive Nicaraguan land indiscriminately sold over recent years to Salvadorans or Hondurans. The two Nicaraguan governments of this decade have also sold off other important parts of the patria through the sale of ENITEL and other state enterprises, our flora and fauna and even our biodiversity, all of which can also be considered part of our national patrimony.
A colony of Taiwan and MiamiThe conflict with Honduras also reminded us of Nicaragua's consistently cowardly foreign policy in the 1990s. The Chamorro government withdrew not only the case Nicaragua had already won against the United States in the 1980s in the International Court of Justice in The Hague, but also the case against Honduras for its anti-Nicaraguan policy in the 1980s, which went far beyond just the Ramírez-López treaty. The Alemán government has now taken this treaty conflict to both the ineffective Central American Court of Justice, whose competence in the case Honduras has already ignored, and the International Court in The Hague, that same court on which Nicaragua turned its back only a few years ago. It will be several more years before a decision is handed down. Who will be in office to respect it, and what will be the context of the region by then?
In today's Liberal Nicaragua, foreign policy has only two clear profiles. One is to be a colony of Taiwan, which has given the government huge sums in exchange for defending its claim to recognition in the United Nations. The other is to be a colony of the anti-Castro community in Miami, which gives the government major sums in exchange for criticizing the Castro government in any international forum. In the rest of the outside world, the Alemán government's diplomats—in general, people with little experience or professionalism—have bored themselves and everyone else with their litany that the country's “new” foreign policy consists only of opening markets, seeking trade relations. “It's a question of selling Nicaragua,” Foreign Minister Eduardo Montealegre has oft been heard to repeat.
When this conflict with Honduras and Colombia broke out, Nicaragua had no foreign policy, no development policy for the Atlantic Coast and no policy to defend its remaining valuable national resources. Its political class has been losing touch with the sense of nation. It is hard to defend the nation when you have no idea what it means.
Nicaragua is too limited either to choose the erroneous path of war—given its currently shrunken army—or to seriously embark on the correct and necessary path of diplomacy. Consequently, the country finds itself very much alone in this conflict and burdened with enormous disadvantages. The crossroads is complex. Any way out will take years to find and there are no assurances that it will turn out to be a positive one even then.
Touching bottomThe jailing of the comptroller general can be seen not just as a tragedy in which we have touched bottom but also as an opportunity in which the only way is up. And the same is true of the Alemán-Ortega pact: the only thing to do in such a closed scenario is organize to open it. If Nicaragua can surmount these domestic conflicts with a democratic vocation and a true sense of nation, it will obviously be in a better position to deal in a more capable and dignified way with any international conflicts that the new century might bring.
EUROPEAN UNION DECLARATION
On November 17, the European Union, together with Norway and Switzerland, shook the Alemán government with the publication of the following declaration, which we translate in its entirety:
"The representatives of the Member States of the European Union together with Norway and Switzerland are deeply concerned by the events that led to the detention and imprisonment of Comptroller General Agustín Jarquín. These events, which illustrate the challenges facing Nicaragua in the consolidation of democracy, could have a profound impact on the governance of the country and may endanger Nicaragua's admission to the HIPC initiative.
"We would like to see a rapid solution to the current institutional problems to avoid later negative repercussions. Some institutions such as the Office of Comptroller General of the Republic have had the full exercise of their constitutional functions impeded for some time.
"Various cases exposed by the Office of Comptroller General of the Republic, which could imply the misuse of important sums of public money, remain open. The safeguarding of the independence and apolitical functioning of institutions is an important condition for access to the points of decision and fulfillment of the HIPC initiative.
"We have closely followed the events and the positive steps taken to adopt the recommendations of the Declaration of Stockholm. Similarly, we have observed with satisfaction the steps taken to incorporate criteria of governance in the dispositions of the ESAF and the HIPC initiative. It pleases us to recognize the positive attitude shown by the different Nicaraguan actors and we have viewed it as an encouraging sign and as the desire to endow the word—transformation—with solid content.
"The rule of law, transparency and respect for the independence of the democratic institutions are of capital importance for any country and form the base of any development efforts. It is therefore necessary that institutions such as the Comptroller General's office and the judicial and electoral systems are able to function without political interference.
"In our quality as longstanding friends of Nicaragua, we sincerely hope that the Government will take note of our deep concern and we would like to see our cooperation continue on more solid foundations, strengthened by shared values of democracy and recognition of the importance of the independence of public institutions."
In the context of the crisis, the European communiqué could not be clearer or a more powerful instrument of pressure. The bulk of the aid to Nicaragua currently comes from the European Union and its member countries, which will provide more than a third of the financing the government will receive over the next three years.