Envío Digital
Central American University - UCA  
  Number 107 | Junio 1990



Municipal Autonomy in Nicaragua

Envío team

With the February 25 elections, Nicaragua launched a new phase of government. Municipal Councils were elected in 131 municipalities (a unit that includes major cities or towns and their surrounding rural areas) nationwide. As in the elections for President/Vice President and National Assembly, the UNO coalition candidates swept most of the municipal councils, winning 100 to the FSLN's 3l. Despite the historical nature of Nicaragua's first-ever municipal elections and the power potentially available to local governments, these elections received very little attention.

During the first two weeks of May, the new Municipal Councils were sworn in to begin their six-year terms. Changes in the municipalities will reflect far more than a switch from FSLN to UNO government. Municipal autonomy as designed by the FSLN is a democratic, progressive concept, promoting the active participation of citizens on a local level.

The new municipal councils will function based on the municipal autonomy envisioned in the 1987 Constitution: “The municipality is the basic unit of political administration in the country... The government and administration of municipalities is the responsibility of the municipal authorities, who enjoy autonomy without abrogating the authority of the central government. Municipal governments shall be elected by the people, through equal, direct, free and universal suffrage in secret ballot.” A Municipal Law was passed in July 1988 reflecting that vision, but with significant modifications by the opposition in the National Assembly.

Election results change face of municipalities

The distribution of Council seats outlined in the Electoral Law was designed for the political situation in 1988, when it was passed—20 different political parties and only tenuous coalitions. The party—or coalition—with the plurality of votes is guaranteed an automatic majority of seats, generally disproportionate to its percentage of votes. This worked in the FSLN's favor in León, for example, where with a 1% margin of victory it took 8 seats to UNO's 2. But, given the unexpected election results, UNO's majority, no matter how small, such as 303 votes or 2.7% in Nandaime, gave the coalition comfortable control of the Municipal Councils in most major cities and towns. Government and electoral experts concur that a more balanced, proportionally based system would be preferable, but the Electoral Law is a constitutional law and therefore difficult to change.

Managua, with the largest population, has 20 Council seats, 16 of which are controlled by UNO. In departmental capitals and municipalities with a population of 20,000 or more, there are 10 Council seats, with the first five and a portion of those remaining automatically going to the party with the most votes. In all but a few cities, the split is eight or nine seats for the winning party, and two or one for the loser. Of these 45 major municipalities, the FSLN won only 15: Estelí, Condega, Ocotal, Jalapa, Somotillo, Larreynaga, León, Jinotepe, Masatepe, Waslala, Wiwilí, El Cuá-Bocay, San Ramón, Tuma-La Dalia and San Carlos. UNO and the FSLN ran candidates in all the major municipalities; other contending parties ran candidates in only some. Most experts are unable to explain why the Central American Unity Party (PUCA) was the only other party to win any Council seats. In Muelle de los Bueyes and El Rama, UNO had incomplete slates of only five candidates; of the remaining five seats in each, three went to the FSLN and two to the PUCA (which won a total of only 64 and 133 votes in the respective municipalities).

Municipalities with a population of under 20,000 have five-member Councils. Again, the victorious party gets the majority of seats—three—with the remaining two going to the runner-up. UNO controls 68 of the 85 small municipalities; the FSLN ran candidates in all, UNO in all but three. UNO won in two towns, Paiwas and Macuelizo, where it had no candidates, so UNO ballots were declared null; the FSLN thus won three of the seats and PUCA picked up the other two with a total of 18 and 74 votes, respectively. The FSLN was confronted with the unwelcome choice of forming a local government that the majority of voters had not approved. Cárdenas, a small town in Region IV, is the only municipal council where the FSLN swept all five seats because no other party presented candidates.

In a number of municipalities, UNO candidates resigned after the ballots were printed, but before the election. In others, elected Council members failed to present their credentials and be sworn into office. Each candidate for municipal council was to have an alternate, and again a number of UNO slates were incomplete. Nicaragua's Supreme Electoral Council (CSE) has yet to resolve these anomalies, CSE spokesperson Roberto Heber told envío.

UNO's local victories were not necessarily a judgment on the performance of the previous FSLN mayors. People who voted for UNO presidential/vice presidential and National Assembly candidates nearly always voted for UNO Municipal Council candidates. Most voters did not know that crossover voting was possible. “We tried to educate voters that they could vote for different parties on separate ballots, but we were not insistent, according to Dr. Heber.

From indigenous culture to Somoza

While the new system of municipal autonomy is a significant departure from the past ten years of revolutionary government and the preceding nearly half-century years of Somoza dictatorship, its roots are found in Nicaragua's history of strong local authority.

According to the Manual de Formación Municipal de Nicaragua, when Spanish colonists arrived in Nicaragua they found an indigenous population organized by communities, with local councils or calpulli. The calpulli was elected by popular vote; its main function was to maintain order and administer the market. A chief or king often ruled over a group of communities covering a large geographic area. Colonial authorities permitted these indigenous structures to function for the indigenous population, subordinate to the representative of the Spanish crown, and established parallel authorities to govern the colonial population.

This latter population was organized by municipality; the first two founded were León and Granada, in 1523. Each municipality was governed by a council (cabildo) elected for a one-year term, which in turn elected two of its members as first and second mayor.

Beginning in 1550, the Spanish colonial authorities divided Nicaragua into provinces administered by a governor or mayor. Departmental divisions came much later, in the 19th century.

The French Revolution of 1789 had an impact on local governments in Spain that was transferred to the colonies. The Spanish Constitution of 1812 reformed municipal political-administrative structures to elected town councils. These councils had much greater power than the former cabildo, including running hospitals; building roads; promoting agriculture, industry and commerce; public order; primary education; ordinances; and raising funds for local projects.

It was not until the Somoza regime that municipal governments in Nicaragua changed substantially. “Somoza eradicated municipal government, taking away its autonomy, but more importantly taking away the people's right to elect municipal governments,” notes Manuel Sandino, a municipal adviser for the former government. Somoza suspended municipal elections in August 1937, and granted the executive the power to appoint local councils. This power was confirmed in the 1939 Constitution, and modified in the 1950 Constitution to permit appointed or elected municipal authorities. “Somoza's suffocating central control was complemented on the local level by corruption and the use of his strongmen,” former Vice President Sergio Ramírez told a mayor's gathering in 1989. Somoza's appointees were generally large landowners or businesspeople who were responsible for collecting taxes, registering births and deaths and repressing local discontent. As part of the Somoza regime’s patronage system, these appointees had access to power and money. Even in the smallest communities, the government-appointed judge was notorious for carrying out the National Guard’s repressive policies and enriching himself through corruption. Many of them fled the country with Somoza in July 1979, emptying local treasuries and destroying records. Managua, in particular, “lost its municipal character and was administered directly by the central government for 60 years. The municipalities were weakened, both in their political and moral authority with the citizenry and in their financial and technical capabilities,” said Ramírez.

The Sandinista revolution: Municipal reconstruction

As a result, when the Sandinistas took power in July 1979, they had to create municipal governments from scratch. During the period of the insurrection, community defense committees (CDC) had organized towns neighborhood by neighborhood. Even before July 19, as the FSLN liberated towns it created local councils, such as in Diriamba, Jinotepe, León and Masaya, Immediately after the triumph, Municipal Reconstruction Councils (JMR) were set up. Each JMR was composed of three to five respected community leaders, selected on the basis of the political leadership, community trust and support they had developed during the insurrection. Individuals were named by the central government and ratified in popular assemblies. Their main task was responding to the emergency situation created by the war: to provide food, water, housing and sanitation. “Ironically, in the first chaotic days after the triumph, the municipalities functioned better than the central government,” according to Manuel Sandino.

As the immediate crisis period ended, the role of the JMR shifted to reconstruction and replacing or creating basic services such as electricity, water, sanitation, roads, clinics and public health, literacy and education. With virtually no independent local resources, such projects were designed and funded by the national government, leaving local councils responsible for implementation. Many JMR members were workers or peasants who had no administrative experience, and some had little formal education. As their responsibilities shifted from political leadership to more administrative and technical tasks, there was considerable turnover in JMR membership. Some people resigned, and others who were unpopular or inefficient were recalled. New members were named on the recommendation of FSLN popular organizations such as AMNLAE, the Sandinista Defense Committees (CDS, successor to the CDC) and unions.

Mass participation in decision-making was encouraged and popular participation was essential for the implementation of any community project. Volunteer labor and donated materials compensated for the scarcity of material and financial resources available from the central government. In some towns, advisory councils were formed of local chambers of commerce and other representatives of the business community as well as mass organizations and community leaders.

As the JMRs gained experience and expertise in the administration of projects, local decisions about allocating development funds created tensions with the highly centralized state. Government bureaucracy was often slow to respond to local needs and priorities, and the competition for resources fostered frustration within the municipalities. While the state was no more centralized than that of Somoza, the FSLN's philosophy of popular power and the dramatic increase in development projects raised expectations of a government responsive to local needs.

Various bodies were created to facilitate communication with municipalities and local project development. The Secretariat for Municipal Affairs (SAMU) was set up to coordinate with and provide technical assistance and support to municipalities. The JMRs were burdened with political and administrative tasks, and by 1982, SAMU sought to resolve this by subsidizing salaries for administrative staff to support the JMRs.

Later, Regional Program Coordinating Committees were created for agriculture, industry, trade, infrastructure and social services. These committees also had representatives from the Planning Ministry, local government and relevant grassroots organizations. The heads of each committee worked together with the municipal governments, FSLN and mass organizations in a Departmental Planning Council. Coordinating committees composed of municipal council coordinators within each department helped rationalize local development and resource distribution.

Regionalization decentralizes the executive

“Although the management of the municipalities was developing and they were becoming stronger and more autonomous, they were not institutionally or administratively mature enough to take on some of the functions of the central government,” according to Manuel Sandino. “And, the capacity for regional self defense and regional survival was vital.” Other goals behind creating the nine regions, announced on July 19, 1982, were to foster more decentralized grassroots decision-making and a more balanced development among the various geographic areas of the country. Regional boundaries were drawn up largely based on economic links, combining several of the former 16 departments, with the exception of Managua, which became its own region, and the three special zones of North Zelaya, South Zelaya and Río San Juan.

A presidentially appointed delegate and regional offices of each ministry coordinated all regional work and became an intermediate stage between the central and local governments. But “regionalization really meant deconcentration and reorganization of the executive branch more than decentralization,” according to Monica Baltodano, former Minister of the Presidency responsible for the regions. Regional ministerial offices remained subordinated to national plans, which often were not adjusted to regional conditions.

Sandino admits that “regionalization crippled the growth and development of municipal governments,” but adds that “reducing the overly bureaucratic central authority also brought basic services closer to the people.” Changes in the central government reflected the need to make the bureaucracy more responsive to local needs. At first, SAMU was replaced by the Secretariat for Regional Coordination. Then, after the 1984 national elections, the newly created Ministry of the Presidency took over coordination of municipal and regional affairs, creating the Presidential Secretariat of Regional Affairs (SARP).

By 1985, SARP was replaced by the Directorate of Municipal and Regional Affairs (DAMUR), signaling a new interest in municipal development. DAMUR conducted seminars and training workshops on local government and drafted the Municipalities Law in coordination with mayors throughout the country. In 1989, the Nicaraguan Institute for Municipal Promotion (INIFOM) replaced DAMUR and was removed from the Ministry of the Presidency and constituted as an autonomous state organ.

Over time, the regional governments functioned more as administrative, inter-institutional units. But this inter-institutional coordination had grown out of the demands of the war. Coordinating meetings usually included regional authorities from the army and the Ministry of the Interior.

As the war slowly lessened in intensity and the JMRs gained political credibility and administrative experience, regional offices tended to serve the smaller municipalities—providing technical assistance and facilitating international donations—more than the larger towns, which had full-time municipal staffs. The Sandinista government decided to eliminate these regional governments gradually.

Jorge Gómez, President Chamorro's official responsible for the regions, confirmed that the UNO government is implementing the FSLN's de-regionalization plan. “Over the next two months, the regions will disappear, and the 16 departments will be reactivated. Regionalization was a result of the war, and is now no longer necessary. Instead, each government ministry will function on a departmental basis,” Gomez told envío in mid-May.

New Law and New Policies

The July 1988 Municipal Law specifies the functioning, rights and duties of Municipal Councils. These include urban development and shared responsibility with the central government for education, health, housing, environmental and water services, culture and sports. A municipality may also enter into sister-city relations and accept or reject donations.

The new Municipal Councils function somewhat like the old cabildos, electing the mayor from among their members. The mayor has overwhelming power as chief executive and administrator. Managua's UNO Mayor Arnoldo Alemán Lacayo told envío, “The mayor is strong; he doesn’t have to wait for council resolutions to make decisions. The mayor is the maximum authority in the municipality, with full decision-making power.” Alemán is known for his authoritarianism and apparent tendency to exaggerate his own power. While the mayor is the “maximum executive municipal government authority” according to law, certain decisions must, in fact, be approved by the Council, such as the municipal budget and all municipal ordinances.

Sessions of the Municipal Council must be public, and articles 36 and 37 of the law specify that a minimum of two town meetings must be held each year to encourage popular participation, constructive criticism and support, and to discuss the municipal budget and its implementation. In the Assembly debate in 1988, the FSLN pushed for the town meetings, or popular assemblies, to have more power, including the right to “initiate proceedings for substituting the mayor,” but, due to strong opposition from the rightwing parties, this was not included in the final law.

“True autonomy requires economic capability, so the law specifies that municipalities will develop their own budgets and collect taxes,” explains Manuel Sandino. Sales, service and registration taxes and income from municipal property and enterprises comprised nearly 80% of municipal income in 1988. Managua is an exception, with 50-60% of its funding coming directly from the central government. The municipal tax model is still on the drawing board, but INIFOM proposes, in order to increase their funding base, that municipalities also collect real estate and vehicle taxes, issue commercial and construction licenses, and offer municipal credits at standard interest rates.

“Most municipalities are better at collecting taxes than the central government. Over the past four years, they have been trained and have become very energetic and efficient,” explains Aurelio Tijera of INIFOM. “For example, in 1989, when the inflation rate was 36,000%, municipalities would not have been able to pay salaries and would have died had they not collected their sales taxes. The municipalities survived, in fact much better than the central government. At one point, the central government proposed to the municipalities that they could stop collecting taxes and the government would raise its 15% tax to 17%, giving the municipalities the additional 2%. The municipalities said “No thanks!” said Tijera. “No one wants to pay taxes,” said Mayor Alemán, “so we must show them that their taxes are reinvested for the good of the entire community.”

After over 60 years of strong central state control, municipal autonomy may take some time to implement effectively, especially given Nicaragua's reliance on international aid and the tendency toward concentration of resources in the central government. INIFOM's Aurelio Tijera predicts a “healthy struggle, a healthy competition between the central government and the municipalities, just as exists in any modern state.” At training workshops offered to all Council members in April, INIFOM officials had to explain the basic concepts of municipal government as well as the more complicated procedures of municipal affairs. It will take more time to refocus popular attention away from the central government and toward people's rights and responsibilities as citizens of a municipality.

The UNO government and the UNO-run municipalities may implement the new law very differently than the Sandinistas projected. In each municipality, the FSLN had a campaign platform outlining specific reforms and projects; UNO rarely presented such a program. One expert in municipal affairs describes the UNO program for Managua as covering baseball, rebuilding the cathedral and tearing down walls. He also cautioned that the “low political and academic level of many of the UNO council members, especially in the small towns, may cause serious problems.”

The transitions in municipal government have gone remarkably smoothly in a number of towns, with the new UNO administration praising the Sandinistas and working very cooperatively. “We all know each other very well; we’ve grown up together. We all want to focus on community development, health and education, so there's no reason for political conflict,” José Abraham Rubio Hernández, an UNO council member from Ocotal, told envío. The FSLN won the Ocotal Municipal Council. In several of the major cities, transition from FSLN to UNO control was not so harmonious. The media exchanged accusations of mismanagement, corruption and favoritism. During the inauguration of the new Council in Matagalpa, the outgoing and incoming mayors tried to calm their chanting supporters while police kept the two sides separated. The Councils in Masaya, El Viejo, San Jorge and Palacagüina began on a note of conflict, with the contending forces within UNO struggling over the position for mayor.

Mayor Alemán, who describes himself as a “businessman with a social conscience," expended much energy condemning the “Frentista” administration of former Mayor Carlos Carrión, accusing him of stealing municipal property, gross mismanagement and corruption. “We found the city sacked economically,” Alemán told envío. Carrión sued for libel, demanding that Alemán produce evidence of his allegations, and suggesting that the mayor is “trying to hide something” by denying the existence of hundreds of vehicles and a bank account with 23 billion córdobas and $215,000. Alemán, like other strong UNO mayors, is expected to crack down on Sandinista and other popular activities. He has already ordered the destruction of billboards erected by the Institute of Culture that proclaim “Viva Nicaragua” on a red and black background, and cancelled a city contract signed with a dance troupe to give workshops in popular culture and folkdance.

One of Alemán’s first acts was to throw an expensive party at the Intercontinental Hotel, inviting several Cuban-exile mayors from the Miami area to set up sister city relations with the various districts of Managua. According to Alemán, “The Frentista administration took all the projects, and even project proposals, set up parallel organizations and are trying to get foreign governments and international organizations to give money directly to them.”

After the elections, a number of new nonprofit organizations were established to facilitate continued international aid to projects the new government might choose to cut. The government has the power to take “strong measures, such as economic strangulation and red tape for donations and delegations to FSLN-run cities,” noted one municipal expert. “It is in the government's interest to facilitate aid and donations to all municipalities,” according to Manuel Sandino, who now heads the new Popol-Na Foundation. Popol-Na, which means “community center” in the indigenous Nahual language, was created to “research and advise on municipal affairs, promote popular participation and facilitate international cooperation with both FSLN and UNO controlled towns,” Sandino told envío.

As the UNO government attempts to “de-Sandinista-ize” Nicaragua through changes in government personnel and new land and labor laws, new UNO municipal governments will likely attempt similar policies. The polarization of the country may be felt on the local level, even as people are beginning to comprehend the concept of municipal autonomy. Unfortunately, the very real problems and development needs of Nicaragua's municipalities may take a back seat to the larger political struggle at hand.

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