Envío Digital
Central American University - UCA  
  Number 279 | Octubre 2004



They Overturned the Table With the Dice Still in the Air

While Nicaraguans were waiting to see how the dice would fall in November’s municipal elections, two of the three poles of power decided to play rough, overturning President Bolaños’ gaming table. The post-election political map will play a decisive role in all their future games, alliances, shady deals and other chicanery already underway.

Nitlápan-Envío team

President Bolaños’ conflicts with the judicial and legislative branches—both of which are split almost evenly between his adversaries, the FSLN and the PLC—were expressed last month in a constant and often ridiculous exercise of provocative rhetoric. Hiding behind this name-calling exchange are some of the President’s most urgent legislative needs: approval of next year’s budget, the free trade agreement with the United States and other bills indispensable to the consummation of his project. The rhetoric reflected both mounting tension in the PLC and FSLN upper echelons and the standard fare of their joint harassment of Bolaños. Various sectors insisted on a “national dialogue” to resolve this “institutional crisis,” which reached its most serious expression to date on October 7, when the Office of Comptroller General issued a resolution requesting not that the legislative body impeach President Bolaños, which would imply due process, but simply that it remove him from office. Bereft of any significant party backing, President Bolaños appealed to society, but society is sick of being appealed to without ever being taken into account.

A bridge to the FSLN?

The idea of a national dialogue has become a political fetish. The PLC sees it as a new door that could lead to Alemán’s release, but Bolaños conditioned any dialogue on keeping that door boarded up. Although winning back PLC support would favor his project, it would be fatal for the President’s assiduously cultivated image of international fighter against corruption. The PLC keeps seeking out the FSLN to help pressure Bolaños, but the FSLN swings back and forth between the two with proven skill, setting itself up as a determining factor in any dialogue.

The newest element in this scenario is less visible: behind the scenes big capital is insistently encouraging President Bolaños to consider the FSLN as a factor of governability and come to an understanding with it. In other words, it wants him to forget the counsel offered by US Secretary of State Colin Powell over a year ago, which he has docilely but enthusiastically tried to follow ever since.

Calculating that the dice will fall in the FSLN’s favor at the municipal election table, and preferring not to spend the next two years economically thrown off stride by the generalized fear of Daniel Ortega’s return to government, as happened in 1996-97 and 2000-01, big capital recommended that Bolaños reach out to the FSLN in the name of stability. Carlos Pellas, as big as Central American capital gets and them some, suggested a few months ago that he start seeking an agreement with the parties “little by little.” He also urged Bolaños to work more with the other branches of government, pragmatically suggesting that these gradual changes could lead to a different judicial branch in 10 to 15 years time. It was one of very few signs of long-term perspective this country has seen in years.

Greedy, thieving legislators

Over the course of the month, however, the political push-pull around a possible dialogue could hardly be characterized as “reaching out.” Rather it was laced with insult-trading and political tussles-turned-spectacles that drew attention away from the real business of personal ambitions and jockeying for negotiation positions. Let’s replay several episodes of this “dialogue” that was unfolding before the PLC and FSLN finally allied to turn the tables on Bolaños.

The scene opens with PLC legislators, inspired by the Venezuelan case and desperate because they can’t secure Alemán’s release, proposing a referendum to cut Bolaños’ term of office and thus revoke his mandate. Bolaños retaliates by proposing a plebiscite on cutting the legislative term. Days later the curtain comes down on that particular scene when the Supreme Electoral Council reminds them both that there’s neither time nor money for such ideas.

In the next scene, FSLN and PLC legislators threaten Bolaños by proposing a constitutional reform to establish that the National Assembly must ratify all ambassadors, ministers and other top posts in the state institutions currently appointed by the President. Pro-Bolaños legislators go on the warpath, accusing their colleagues of wanting a “de facto parliamentary system” with a President who is a mere show window mannequin. Bolaños himself retorts that the FSLN and PLC know they’ll never win the presidency in an election and thus prefer to whittle away its attributes.

In the next, FSLN legislators backpedal for some reason, declaring that they don’t really support that reform, while some on the PLC bench say yes and others say no. Sensing a moment of weakness, Bolaños goes on the offensive again, stating that the real reason they want to control appointments to state entities from the National Assembly is financial: “Their greedy, thieving eyes have alighted on the same institutions they pillaged before.” As FSLN and PLC legislators assume an offended pose, Herty Lewites enters stage right to offer himself as a “communicating vessel” in what he calls the urgent need for a Bolaños-Ortega dialogue. Bolaños immediately accepts his offer to mediate.

Next, FSLN and PLC legislators catch Bolaños off guard by meeting with Supreme Court justices to reach agreement on the most controversial aspects of the exceedingly controversial judicial career bill, one of the major causes of this past year’s “crisis.” Ortega and Alemán followers resolve their serious differences with Alemán’s side backing down, though it remains to be seen what they got in exchange. Having left Bolaños in the wings, they make at least one message clear: we have the capacity to solve problems together while the President only stirs them up. Leaving the PLC-FSLN meeting, legislator René Herrera, Alemán’s re-anointed buddy, takes center stage to sum up the message for anybody who doesn’t get it: “We aren’t on the defensive,” he explains to the cameras; “the President started the war of the state branches.”

How many Nicas does it take
to hold a national dialogue?

Cutting to another scene, a smiling Lewites celebrates having convinced Bolaños and Ortega to sit down and talk. Bolaños agrees to an open agenda with the exception of the Alemán case, causing temperatures to rise in the PLC. Bolaños then dines with Lewites and between his two discursive postures—arrogant taskmaster and impotent victim—opts for the latter in appealing to Lewites: “Daniel’s very skilled and he’s shifty. Doesn’t he just want to throw down a banana peel so I slip and fall?” But he announces that he will dialogue with Ortega after his return from the UN General Assembly. Two days later, he states in a speech that Daniel Ortega “was a Walker,” comparing the 1984 elections when Ortega was elected President (considered by observers to have been free and fair) to the sham organized by filibusterer William Walker in 1856 to get himself named President of Nicaragua.

In the September 14-15 Independence celebrations, Bolaños announces that he will meet with the legislative and judicial branches as a prelude to the national dialogue. Up to that point, “national” means Bolaños-Ortega, further isolating the PLC and increasing its resentment. It is mediator Lewites who announces that the PLC will be the third force invited to the dialogue he’s organizing. At that point, Vice President and PLC presidential hopeful José Rizo bursts on stage, insisting that the Alemán issue must not be excluded from the dialogue.

Rejecting Bolaños’ “impolite attitude,” the PLC warns that no party leader with a legislative seat will attend any presidential call to dialogue. PLC leader Wilfredo Navarro calls Bolaños “rude, hostile and offensive.” Like other Alemán backers, Navarro is showing off for his boss, but Ortega also takes a shot: “I have never asked for an appointment, nor am I desperate to meet with [Bolaños].” He insists that it would be best to hold off talks until after the municipal elections, because the vote will be the genuine “national dialogue.” While he’s at it, he de-authorizes Lewites as mediator and, exploiting the news that a lawsuit has been opened against Alemán in Panama for the money laundered there, he reminds Bolaños that a lawsuit awaits him, too, for his alleged electoral crimes.

Who’s running things here?

Following Pellas’ suggestion, Bolaños sets up a meeting to smooth things over with the Supreme Court justices, but on Alemán’s orders not one of the eight Liberal justices attends. Meanwhile Ortega and both his and Alemán’s legislators publicly agree that the right conditions do not exist for any dialogue. And every chance he gets, Ortega repeats that there’s no need for any mediator. Unphased, Lewites continues smiling as if no one was referring to him and claiming that he will make the talks happen.

Ortega and Alemán backers join voices to chorus that it would be better to dialogue after the elections, each believing that the results will give them greater leverage. According to an M&R poll done at the beginning of September, 33% of the population believes that the Sandinistas are running things in Nicaragua, with only 9.8% feeling that Bolaños is really in charge. At another lunch on September 27, Bolaños and Lewites set a date and place for the “Bolaños-Ortega” dialogue: October 1, more than a month before the elections, at the presidential offices. Alemán’s backers, sidelined once again, declare that the President lives in fear of the Sandinista caudillo.

The two brothers

At this point in the plot, the curtain unexpectedly rises on Daniel Ortega’s brother Humberto publicly lunching with Bolaños. So at least some will get the picture, the former army general subsequently declares, “These two fundamental components of the electoral result [referring to the FSLN and President Bolaños—who ran on the PLC ticket] have to work in the greatest harmony possible. That was what we talked about.” Bolaños again adopts the posture of victim rather than willing participant, and makes a rather surprising declaration: “Sadly, I see more willingness to work for the people in the Sandinista Front than I do in the Alemán group.”

Which FSLN is he referring to: the one Herty and Humberto claim to represent or the one headed by Daniel? Only hours after that lunch, Daniel, his public face lacking its normal composure, seeks to clear up any doubts: “I’m not a government employee. I represent a very important national political force.” Clearly peeved, he adds that this is not the first time his brother has met with Bolaños, then tries to recover the initiative by conditioning any dialogue with Bolaños on the presence of Cardinal Miguel Obando as a “witness.” His two-edged objective is to bolster the image of his reconciliation with the Catholic Church while at the same time introducing Alemán onto the dialogue agenda—albeit by proxy. Bolaños immediately accepts the cardi-nal’s presence, while US Ambassador Barbara Moore backs up Bolaños’ position that Alemán should remain off the dialogue agenda. In her habitual meddling manner and without mincing words, she states that the Alemán affair “must no longer have any influence on national priorities.”

Violeta Chamorro steps in

On September 30, the presidents of the legislative, judicial and electoral branches meet with Bolaños at the home of former President Violeta Chamorro. Bolaños brings Lewites, appointing him as his “manager.” Between laughter and back-slapping for the TV cameras, the guests explain that this “social” meeting, which they also refer to as a “rapprochement,” is the prelude to a “more serious” meeting, at which point the matriarchal hostess chimes in: “I believe the word dialogue is important.”

The next day, October 1, nothing happens. Cardinal Obando is in Rome visiting the Pope and Daniel Ortega decides to wait for his return before making another public appearance. But when Bolaños daringly decides to refer to the FSLN’s “obsolete political leadership,” Ortega returns the blow, calling him a “manipulator and a clown.” He then proceeds to ridicule Bolaños, charging that he never seems to have time for dialogue, “but we see him in bars and restaurants” [alluding to his lunches and dinners with Lewites]. “Somebody is saying I hang out in canteens,” Bolaños will say days later, again with his hangdog victim look.

Well, that’s as far as the “national dialogue” script has been played out so far. What genre shall we assign it: drama, farce, musical, horror, suspense? It would be picturesque to describe all this as the prelude to a truly “national” dialogue. But quite apart from the fact that a handful of participants do not a nation make, is there any talk of nation on the agenda for this dialogue? Is there even anything of nation in Nicaragua these days? Or is the country really just some tiny spot in the world being wrangled over like a hacienda whose ownership is up for grabs?

The electoral dice

It looks as though the sequel already beginning to be scripted for when the electoral dice finally land, indicating winners and losers in the municipal elections, will be no less picturesque. Let’s paint the likely stage set.

It is very probable that the FSLN will again affirm itself as a reality that must be taken into account by emerging as the qualitative victor, winning Managua and a majority of the country’s most urban and populous municipalities. Daniel Ortega will attribute it to his leadership, and if the FSLN indeed wins Managua, Herty Lewites will take a share of credit.

It is also probable that the APRE alliance, with the Conservative Party actively at the helm to provide continuity to the Bolaños project, will do better than was first thought. Will it pull enough votes to clinch the erosion suffered by the PLC over these years and appropriate the anti-Sandinista vote for the presidential elections in 2006? This is the major enigma, with the executive, big capital and the US Embassy working for a positive outcome.

The continuity of the project itself could hang on these results, and all crises in the country seem designed either to promote or scuttle the effort to keep it in place. It is a lot of grief to cause for a project that, as we know it so far, only benefits the select few and appears unable to respond to the nation’s many critical problems.

The PLC is going into the elections as the most eroded pole of power: its base is seriously divided and the party makes no secret of the fact that its campaign coffers are hurting. What has not eroded nearly enough yet is the loyalty to maximum Liberal leader and “hospital prisoner” Arnoldo Alemán. Although awareness is growing among Liberals that his freedom could be a long way off, many still harbor expectations of “Arnoldo 2006,” as displayed on a number of t-shirts already beginning to be seen around the country.

Despite all of its problems, the PLC is still likely to be the quantitative victor in the elections, again winning the majority of smaller and more rural municipalities. And while Dionisio Marenco, the FSLN’s mayoral candidate for Managua, has been comfortably ahead of PLC candidate Pedro Joaquín Chamorro Jr., some polls are now showing the two in a technical tie, and that was before Violeta Chamorro publicly endorsed her son. “I give him my support as a mother, but I do support no political party, because as you all know, I do not belong to any party,” she said in her own inimitable fashion, infuriating the PLC.

Lewites in the middle

Even before the electoral dice change all these probabilities into realities, percentages and posts, casting for the 2006 presidential campaign movie is already well underway. There’s no time to lose.

Herty Lewites is indisputably Daniel Ortega’s major challenger in the FSLN camp. The opinion polls have consistently indicated his popularity among Sandinistas, anti-Sandinistas and all points in between.

Ignoring the campaigns from the Ortega circle to disparage him, initiated with literary fury by Ortega’s wife Rosario Murillo months ago, Lewites continues to insist on sharing the FSLN ticket with the party’s general secretary, either as his vice presidential running mate or, in his more audacious moments, as the presidential candidate. Lewites has repeatedly said that when he leaves office as mayor of Managua he will talk to Ortega to resolve this problem. The “problem” is that Ortega is set on being the presidential candidate yet again, and named himself a year ago.

Lewites has the backing of public opinion in the polls, the sponsorship of Humberto Ortega and the FSLN’s business grouping, and is seeing spaces open up to him and support networks emerge among previously dispersed Sandinistas who reject Ortega’s fifth consecutive candidacy, his betrayal of the revolutionary ideals and his continued control of the party. Even Enrique Bolaños backs Lewites, for what that’s worth, and Violeta Chamorro, the political personality who has steadily enjoyed the highest poll ratings since 1996, came out for him this month. The common thread of logic running through all this support is: anybody but Daniel Ortega. And that gives it a now-or-never urgency.

Are there truly antagonistic contradictions between Lewites’ mentor and the self-proclaimed FSLN candidate, in other words between Humberto and Daniel? And what about those that appear to exist between Herty and Daniel? Any expectations—or fears—created around these contradictions could turn out to be false, because appearances are deceiving. Many of the flashpoints could be for show, leading those of us who do not understand the internal workings of the FSLN to confuse appearances with realities.

Montealegre in the center

In the Liberal camp, the hero of the movie is Eduardo Montealegre. The polls have long indicated his popularity with both the Liberal grass roots and many non-aligned voters. Despite repeated sanctions, firings and remonstrances from the Alemán circle, Montealegre has not left the PLC, nor did he leave the government until now. He finally resigned his post as economic minister on October 2, a little over a month before the municipal elections, because there’s no time to lose on this side of the table either.

Although Montealegre has not made any open statements to the effect, everybody knows he wants to run for President. The question whether it will be on the PLC ticket or APRE’s. Montealegre doesn’t have a prayer in a PLC controlled by Alemán, whereas APRE is offering him an open invitation. Upon leaving his Cabinet post, Montealegre said he was returning to the PLC, to which Bolaños responded—perhaps to burn him, perhaps to challenge him or perhaps only to tar the PLC a bit more—by giving him a mission: “clean out” the PLC, “so that... it can proudly participate in political races again.” APRE promptly announced that it would sit down and dialogue with the PLC if it ever purged itself, but the PLC’s Alemán backers threatened to purge Montealegre if he came back with that objective.

Not only does Montealegre enjoy wide backing in the polls, he is being sponsored by the US Embassy in Nicaragua as the strongest standard-bearer of the Bolaños project, is backed by President Bolaños as if he were his own son and is urgently needed by big capital, to which Montealegre belongs by birth, schooling, interests and his every action. But though his support ranges across the political spectrum, it is not as multi-striped as that which Lewites has been able to stir up. While Montealegre’s backing has various logics, the most visible is: anybody but Arnoldo Alemán, which is fueling its own now-or-never urgency.

A Lewites-Montealegre ticket?

The final “twist” of this pre-election script before envío headed off for the printer was straight out of Hollywood: Violeta Chamorro was “accidentally” seen and photographed in a Managua restaurant on October 5, with her left arm around Lewites’ shoulders and her right around Montealegre’s. “It’s a very nice ticket, all of Nicaragua is here,” said the former President, clearly pleased with this all-embracing trio. It was impossible not to evoke the other trio, caudillos Ortega, Alemán and Obando, recently dubbed the “Bermuda triangle” by political pundit Emilio Álvarez Montalbán.

Asked about the “niceness” of the ticket, Lewites declared that he will not abandon the FSLN and that it is “God, not my party or anybody, who’s going to tell me what I have to do. Only my sweet little God knows what will happen to me. My little God will dictate what I have to do.” In answer to the same question, Montealegre responded rather more technocratically: “Anything is possible in politics. Both Lewites and I are going to work within our own parties to make our viewpoints prevail.” It will be a long and unpopular task for both.

The idea of a Lewites-Montealegre ticket has begun to circulate, although it’s hard to tell if it’s a trial balloon, a shot over the bow of their respective parties or a genuine and serious proposal, because its logic is hard to get a grip on. Whatever the case, it does seem to be a supreme expression of the nation’s disorder, one never dreamed of by even the most imaginative post-modernist.

The impressive Jerez

Imagination gets a constant workout in Nicaragua. There is always some new event provoking perplexity, and frequently demoralization. The day after the Lewites-Montealegre news flash, it was again revealed how few people are cheering on the fight against corruption to go the full ten rounds. A five-person jury absolved Byron Jerez, Alemán’s partner in crime, of what came to be known as the “SUV scam,” one of eight corruption cases against him. This was particularly galling given the apparently strong evidence in this case of the embezzlement network organized from Jerez’s post of tax director in the Alemán government.

Jerez’s self-defense in the courtroom was nothing short of stupefying. He combined a high-tech data show with tears and overacted appeals to his honor and the need to put an end to the “hatred” in Nicaragua. Daniel Ortega called the spectacle “impressive,” without specifying what kind of impression he had in mind. This case, centered on 23 top-of-the-line suburban utility vehicles that Jerez bought with state money and distributed to relatives and friends, was heard in a court controlled by judges loyal to the FSLN. Jerez still has three other cases pending sentencing in the same court.

Overturning the table

The day after Jerez’s absolution, Daniel Ortega had an early morning meeting with Cardinal Obando, who with a show of great satisfaction agreed to act as witness in the Ortega-Bolaños dialogue, although he asked to be issued a “formal” invitation. For his part, Ortega let slip what the Comptroller General’s Office—firmly under FSLN-PLC control thanks to the pact—had in store for Bolaños, perhaps to soften him up for the dialogue.

Only hours later, Nicaragua’s public auditing institution issued a resolution fining Bolaños two months of his $10,000-a-month salary for repeatedly and illegally refusing its request to report the origin of the funds used to finance his presidential campaign. It also appealed to the legislative body to “dismiss” him as President, clearly an unconstitutional move.

The Alemán-Ortega duo’s fingerprints are all over this scheme, one of their most spectacular to date, whose timing may have been accelerated by the Montealegre-Lewites maneuver. But the issue of alleged electoral fraud is one that the Controller General’s Office can find support for in other quarters. Weeks earlier, the electoral observation NGO called Ethics and Transparency and the Institute for Democratic Development (IPADE) had both reminded the President of his “absolute legal and moral obligation to submit the pertinent documentation on his campaign financing.”

That night, shifting between arrogance and victim, Bolaños defended himself as usual by appealing to international support and asking people to have faith in him. He cited support for his administration and the “New Era” he claims to be ushering in from the Millennium Account manager, the European Union, the G-8 and Roger Noriega, US Under Secretary of State for Western Hemisphere Affairs. Hours later, Daniel Ortega responded by reading a text riddled with insults—again with the unmistakable seal of Rosario Murillo’s anti-imperialist writings—that challenged Bolaños to renounce his immunity and answer these accusations or pay the consequences.

With rage and courage

Much remains to be played out in this plot. Only our monthly cut-off date forces us to put a period at this moment, never sure how far from the last one it will be.

The idea behind this edition’s summary of Nicaragua’s political situation has been to make the national reality explicit and try to show the logic that links it all together. This last part is the hardest. There does not appear to be any conventional logical framework or universally accepted rationality tying the events in today’s Nicaragua with what happened yesterday, or even linking everything we see unfolding before us on a daily basis.

Despite everything, we keep trying, as “hopeful pessimists.” According to Saint Agustine, all hope has two beautiful daughters: rage and courage. Rage at seeing how things are and courage to change them. This is the ticket we’re voting for and the one that keeps us going.

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They Overturned the Table With the Dice Still in the Air


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