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  Number 282 | Enero 2005
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Nicaragua

Year-end Fireworks in the Legal Country and the Real One

Constitutional reforms shifting power from the executive to the legislative. New institutions giving still more power to the legislative… or rather to Alemán and Ortega in a consolidation of their pact. Alemán back on his hacienda, a step on the way to definitive freedom. These were some of the fireworks the PLC and FSLN set off to ring out 2004.

Nitlápan-Envío team

While Nicaraguans always celebrate the Immaculate Conception of the Virgin Mary, Christmas and the New Year with deafening firecrackers, the joint pyrotechnics display by the Sandinista National Liberation Front (FSLN) and Constitutionalist Liberal Party (PLC) that started right after the municipal elections stole the show this year. The political scene began changing at a dizzying speed right up until the National Assembly closed for vacation. There is little hope of change in the real country. Most families still don’t know where the next meal or the next job will come from. But in the legal country, such as it is, 2004 is ending nothing like it began. A new agreement between the FSLN and the PLC led their benches to push a flurry of new legislation through the National Assembly that, once ratified, will limit President Bolaños’ power even further. The most visible fruit of the agreement, however, is the return to his hacienda of convicted former President and still PLC political boss Arnoldo Alemán. The frustrated, demoralized masses have no idea whether they will benefit or lose even more with these changes—or, as is so often the case with the machinations of the political class this past decade or so, the results will be utterly irrelevant to their genuine and deeply felt concerns.

The local sphere vs. the national

In both number the number and importance of the local governments it won, the FSLN came out of the November 7 municipal elections sitting in the catbird seat, as predicted, while the PLC hung on to a comfortable second place despite sustaining a serious drop from the 2000 elections and President Bolaños’ new Alliance for the Republic (APRE) came in a distant third. The only departure from the predictions was the magnitude of the FSLN’s gain, and hence of the other two contenders’ losses. The FSLN, which had predicted that it would win 80 of the 152 municipal mayoral offices, won 97, including the lion’s share of the departmental capitals and other large cities. Part of the reason was that almost all of the outgoing Sandinista mayors had administered their municipalities well. In addition, the FSLN-Convergence candidates were more appealing than their opponents, which convinced a waffling sector of the electorate to put aside its fears of the erstwhile revolutionary FSLN. The third, and perhaps most clinching reason was that the anti-Sandinista vote split along pro-Alemán (PLC) and anti-Alemán (APRE) lines.

Dare we believe that these results express the importance of municipal concerns such as respected natural leaders, serious candidate selection, the preceding administration’s record, new habits and levels of civic participation and a growing awareness of local power? Is this a harbinger of the future? Can we hope that such meritorious local issues can impose themselves on the national sphere, with its blind loyalty to or rejection of entrenched national leaders, its shortsighted self-serving pacts, institutions and laws and its media-forged public opinion? If so, it means that the seeds sown for years in the municipalities by individuals, groups and organizations might now begin to sprout.

There are those who think that only with an accumulation of forces from below, i.e. at the municipal level, will we one day be able to harvest fundamental changes in Nicaragua. But it is also valid, not to mention highly troubling, to posit that with the national roof caved in, our aspirations have been so reduced that it makes more sense and feels more hopeful to think about Diriomo or Muelle de los Bueyes than about “Nicaragua.”

Triumphalism and desperation

Extrapolating the results of the general elections in 2006 based on those of November’s municipal elections is a risky exercise. Nonetheless, these extrapolations played a key role in the legal fireworks at year’s end. The FSLN’s triumphalism and the PLC’s desperation combined in the explosion of legislative activity.

It was hard for PLC Liberals to swallow their fall to second place in the elections. It was still harder with the party’s unifying leader and embezzler off serving a prison sentence for money laundering, even if he had spent the most recent five months of it running the campaign from a comfy private room in the military hospital “recovering from the complications” of minor surgery on two cramped fingers.

Since well before the municipal elections, the leaders of the two parties had been projecting all possible scenarios and figuring out how to shield themselves from the possible permutations of the 2006 presidential elections, including the official selection of their own candidates in 2005. Since protecting and expanding their arenas of power would necessarily involve legislative changes requiring the cooperation of their two benches, they negotiated a basic agreement that was added to and refined into legalistic language over the course of about a month and a half while they awaited the election results. The PLC’s heavier-than-expected defeat pushed its negotiators to cut whatever deal the FSLN wanted in exchange for moving Alemán closer to freedom—a government spokesperson described their posture as “kneeling with their head bowed toward Daniel Ortega.” And indeed, Alemán’s phased but full release is apparently the centerpiece of this new agreement, no less shameful for being expected. Obtaining it meant so much that the PLC negotiators paid for it by approving legislation that they knew would extraordinarily strengthen the FSLN from here on out.

On Tuesday, November 9, less than 48 hours after the polls closed, the PLC’s 43 disciplined National Assembly representatives joined the FSLN’s 38 to push through a series of major new laws and constitutional reforms and to legislate the creation of important new institutions before the session ended and vacations began. Seldom before have so many laws been cranked out so quickly. Part of the impetus for this feverish work stems from the fact that changes of a constitutional rank must be voted on twice, in two consecutive legislative sessions; if passed in the session closing in December, final passage can come as soon as the new session opens in January, barely missing a heartbeat. When the smoke from all these fireworks cleared, the population also discovered that Alemán had been permitted to leave his prison cell and hospital bed behind him and enjoy December’s festivities under hacienda arrest beside his pool.
Beyond all the analyses of the legalistic and institutional concepts underlying this thunderous fireworks show, the new legislative package was designed to protect the future of the FSLN and the PLC. Whichever of the two parties loses the 2006 presidential elections will still have a large measure of control over the presidential office from the legislative branch. Or, in a different scenario, if both Ortega and Alemán decide to head their respective party’s National Assembly bench instead, endorsing loyal substitute candidates for President, this same package will give them institutionally armored power to control any potential “betrayal” by the winning puppet, as happened to Alemán with Bolaños.

Faith and business practices
are no match for politicking

President Bolaños was on his way to the United States for a vacation when the legislators got down to business. Even when the ruckus emanating from the legislative building could no longer be ignored, his spokespeople did nothing more than express their “strong concern,” some predicting “civil war” while others exhorted the legislators to desist in the name of the “Christmas spirit” of reconciliation. Beyond that, they all appeared disconcerted, unable to react.

The President made no reference to what was happening when he returned to the country. Only after lunching with Cardinal Obando y Bravo hours before Alemán was allowed to return to his hacienda did Bolaños declare to the press, “I work slowly but surely; have faith, you know me by now.” In his next public appearance, he added a touch of science to his words. “Have faith, crises are a cyclical phenomenon in Nicaragua.” And this gem followed later: “It’s true, I’m not a politician and my team isn’t political either. We don’t understand politicking. I come from private enterprise and act according to my conscience and divine enlightenment.”

His rivals’ declarations, in contrast, were gripping. “This is irreversible; there’s no going back,” declared PLC legislator René Herrera, the accord’s chief structural engineer; “the best thing the government can do is bring its boats around and set sail.” FSLN legislator René Núñez, the Assembly’s next president thanks to the accord, was no less definitive: “There’s no possibility of a rupture; it’s too late for the government to try to scuttle this agreement.” And PLC legislator Wilfredo Navarro described it simply as: “a complete package.”

Three Roman candles…

Navarro is quite right in describing the “package” as complete. To start with, the National Assembly reformed three articles of the Constitution by which it will now share attributions with the executive branch that previously were exclusively in presidential hands. First, the President will have to get 60% of the legislators to ratify the future naming of both ministers and ambassadors. Second, the National Assembly can legally cite ministers to appear before it and can remove them from their posts if their explanations do not satisfy the legislators. The third reform facilitates the procedure for overriding presidential vetoes of laws passed by the Assembly.

From the legal perspective, these new constitutional dispositions are not negative. In fact, certain sectors have long criticized the strong presidential bias of Nicaragua’s political system. It has been part of Nicaragua’s political culture for Presidents, Bolaños included, to name ministers or ambassadors based on personal favors, business affinity, ideological loyalties, patronage, nepotism and the like, rather than professional capacity. And this tradition includes translating the immunity these high-level officials receive with the post into an impenetrable wall of impunity.

…and three rockets

Two of the agreement’s showier rockets are laws creating the Superintendence of Public Services (SISEP) and the Institute of Reformed Urban and Rural Property, and putting them firmly under National Assembly control. The third is the transfer to Assembly control of the already existing Nicaraguan Social Security Institute (INSS).

FSLN and PLC apologists have been talking up the SISEP for months. It will have three administrative structures to cover the three regulatory institutions until now administered by the executive branch: INE (electricity), INAA (water) and TELCOR (telecommunications). Two of these public services have already been privatized—electricity to the Spanish company Unión Fenosa and telecommunications to a consortium of transnational capital known as Enitel—and the executive has been trying to privatize the water service for several years now despite strong public opposition.

The stated goal of the new Property Institute is nothing short of closing the file on all the property problems the country has accumulated in the past 25 years due to confiscations, “piñatas” and many other irregularities and outright crimes committed by the powerful and immune over the past four governments. Once the competencies of the various property-related entities the executive branch has created since 1990 are annulled, the Institute will administer the remaining state-held properties, title lands, pay indemnifications for confiscations, resolve the claims of army and contra veterans and unsnarl all other recent and old strands of the enormous property tangle. If that were not a sufficiently awesome set of tasks in the best of circumstances, accomplishing them in Nicaragua will require paper chases that will frequently run into older tenure claims never legalized in the first place, or registry offices long since burned down. That this new institute will fall under National Assembly control was a bomb no one expected.

The INSS law reform naming the National Assembly watchdog of the Social Security Institute does not even touch the underlying controversial issues regarding the funds this institution administers, those belonging to the 300,000 workers who contribute part of their pathetic wages each payday and 100,000 retirees who struggle to survive on their even more pathetic pension benefits. While INSS offers little even to Nicaragua’s limited number of formal sector workers, its treasure chest is one that all past four governing parties have wanted to plunder through some privatization scheme.

Where are the guarantees?

While there is a history of inefficiency and vice in all the processes and institutions the new legislation addresses, it is entirely unlikely that this “complete” package of reforms will do anything to alter it. Where is the guarantee that the new institutions and oversight activities in the hands of legislators loyal only to their respective party leaders will not follow the same course? Who and what will ensure that the sum effect will not be simply to create even more horse trading around who will occupy the high political posts and what their perks will be than the first FSLN-PLC pact already generated? If these reforms guarantee greater democracy, as their defenders argue, who and what will guarantee the democratic behavior of those administering the reforms? What will immunize them against the political culture’s same old virus?

INE and TELCOR have regulated little or nothing done by the companies that bought the electricity and telecommunications services when they were privatized in the nineties. Quite to the contrary, consumers have discovered that they are defenseless against the foreign investors. Since the privati-zations, the Consumers’ Network has filed daily complaints about bill padding, poor service and other arbitrary or flawed behavior, particularly in the electricity sector. And as for the innumerable pending property conflicts, those without power or wealth have seen little benefit from the various laws, institutions and initiatives that the succession of post-1990 governments have come up with to resolve these problems—including the most recent one, initiated by the Alemán-Ortega pact in 1997.

The PLC and FSLN legislators claim that these new institutions will strengthen the state’s regulatory role, benefit the country and streamline processes to conclusively resolve issues that have dragged on and on. But who will ensure this if the existing institutions have functioned so inefficiently? Huge bureaucratic entities have never been efficient, much less fair, in this small, poor and under-educated country where people with power and money carry more weight than institutions.

Why, for example, should we believe that SISEP will function any better than the National Assembly’s already existing infrastructure commission, which has responded to consumer claims with sluggish complacency? And what would make us think that the top appointees in the new Property Institute, who must necessarily be endorsed by Ortega or Alemán, will not respond mainly to the economic interests of their parties’ respective power groups, both of which benefited from the privatizations and participated in the agrarian counterrevolution that got underway almost immediately after the 1990 elections? Where will those who have so far demonstrated efficiency only when their interests and those of their party’s upper echelons are at stake suddenly find the capacity and professional ethic to administer efficient services for a public they have never evinced any previous interest in serving?

And who and what mechanism will guarantee that the INSS funds will not continue being an open treasure chest for the new administrators? In short, what has changed to make us think the future will be any better than the past?

Credit card and
weapons controls

Another new law regulates credit cards for the first time since the new private banking system so insistently, excessively and not always transparently introduced and promoted them. As elsewhere in the credit card world, this buy-now-pay-later scheme in Nicaragua is plagued with high interest rates and extra charges that jeopardize and sometimes bankrupt both those who either don’t understand the fine print on the contract they sign or fall prey to the vice of shortsighted consumer exhibitionism that leads them to spend beyond their means. The bankers, who have been making huge profits from arbitrary contracts and their clients’ conspicuous consumer habits, were sufficiently worried about the bill, aimed at benefiting the country’s 200,000 cardholders and their co-signers, that they fought back. Bolaños’ participation in this debate revealed him to be president not of the country, but of its financial system when he announced that the law was endangering “the entire nation.”

Yet another law in the package, in fact the first to be announced, was the Arms Control and Regulation Law, which will regulate—also for the first time—the sale and possession of arms and the acquisition and elimination of national weapons. This law, too, wrests faculties away from the President, in this case regarding the disposition of both army and police armaments. The President previously had sole responsibility for these faculties as commander-in-chief of the Armed Forces; now he will have to share them with the FSLN and PLC legislative benches.

The budget and the media

Approval of the country’s 2005 budget also fell within the package’s purview. The legislators made important changes to President Bolaños’ budget bill, the most controversial issue of which is again the disproportionate amount of money—almost a third of the country’s ordinary income—that Bolaños wants to earmark for payment on the staggering domestic public debt. The priority should be to restructure rather than pay off this debt so that the majorities do not suffer still more abuses of their basic social rights. But President Bolaños feels personally compelled—and presumably internationally pressured—to take funds away from the urgent needs of health and education to compensate the bankers, international investors and other holders of the compensation bonds for confiscated properties that are now coming due. As in past years, it is expected that Bolaños will veto the changes the legislators made to his budget bill, which he only sends to the Assembly after the international lending institutions have given its key elements the green light.

And finally, to wrap up its fireworks show, the parliamentarians set off a last-minute string of firecrackers under the media: a constitutional reform lifts their tax exoneration for imported paper, machinery, other equipment and spare parts.

The rational and the emotional

Alemán and Ortega apologists described the process by which their National Assembly benches reduced the faculties of the President and the executive branch as one of consensus, harmonization and coordination. Such noble terms did not fool those paying attention to these year-end fireworks, however. No one doubted that, whatever the future pros and cons of this package and however the new Ortega-Alemán agreement underlying it fits in with the two parties’ 2006 election strategies, it contained a strong desire by their two caudillos to stick it to Bolaños.

The President’s relations with the PLC, his adopted party, have never been good, but open war was declared when one of his first moves after taking office in January 2002 was to go after Alemán for his brazen and scandalously huge acts of corruption. Part of his motivation was the hope of wresting control of the PLC from Alemán so he could reshape it into a modern business-oriented party attuned to the needs of globalization. The PLC, far more fiercely under Alemán’s sway than Bolaños had calculated, responded by declaring itself an opposition party. Although Ortega is now in charge of Alemán’s future by virtue of his control over much of the judicial system, the PLC still has it out for Bolaños, because he was the one who instigated Alemán’s fall from grace, is an easier and weaker target and does, after all, still occupy the presidential office.

When Bolaños began his campaign to tar the former President as a big-time embezzler and money launderer, he asked for and eventually got FSLN support to strip Alemán of his parliamentary immunity so he could be tried on the charges. Ortega was more than happy to oblige. It not only suited his own purposes to see Alemán convicted and taken out of the political game, but also meant he could be seen to be leading the charge against corruption for a while, an image he opportunistically hauled out again in the recent municipal race.

The relations that President Bolaños, bereft of a governing party and with only a handful of National Assembly votes, had to engage in with the FSLN to nab Alemán during 2002 were reluctant at best. They became even more iffy in 2003, after he began submitting more openly to the wishes of the US government. Those wishes became public late that year, when Secretary of State Colin Powell paid a visit to order Bolaños and the PLC to make peace within the Liberal family so they could relegate the FSLN to the political dustbin.

But US desires notwithstanding, the conflicts between the PLC and the President and his team could not be bridged, largely because the PLC’s precondition to even a minimum rapprochement was Alemán’s release, anathema to both Bolaños and much of the donor community. In fact, Bolaños aggravated the “sensibilities” of Alemán’s followers even further with his continual epithets, ironies, mockeries and insults against the PLC and its caudillo leader, not to mention his frequent self-aggrandizement. The FSLN was not exempt from similar public treatment from Bolaños, in this case a vain attempt not only to maintain his claim to the moral highroad but also to remind doubters of his own anti-Sandinista credentials.

Throughout 2003, while the PLC consistently bellowed its opposition to Bolaños like a wounded bear, the FSLN fluidly moved back and forth between the PLC and Bolaños according to circumstances, deftly using the “Alemán card” to tantalize the PLC into deals while exploiting Bolaños’ domestic weakness to cut other deals with him.

Failing other alternatives, Bolaños tried to fulfill the US desire for a non-Alemán Liberal alternative by making an end run around the PLC. Using his incumbency advantage, he promoted the creation of a new Liberal party—the GUL—and when that attempt fell flat he followed it in mid-2004 with the Conservative-dominated APRE alliance.

These maneuvers affronted the PLC even more. While they also signaled the end of FSLN-Bolaños cooperation, Ortega can only have been pleased by the turn of events. It meant that the FSLN would go into the November 7 municipal elections against a divided anti-Sandinista vote and with its own ranks potentially strengthened by a still-untested alliance of parties and party fractions calling itself the Convergence.

All of these elements contributed to the decision of the FSLN leadership to try to hammer out another agreement with the PLC in the second half of 2004, using Alemán’s future as the stakes, as always. The FSLN’s clinching success in the municipal elections was the final piece in the party’s plans. The next day, Ortega, brandishing his recently acquired religious and reconciliatory vocabulary, announced that Nicaragua had been “baptized with the holy water of reconciliation” and that a new stage was at hand. And so it was: reconciliation with the PLC leader. It was time to put away the anti-corruption banner and start treating Alemán as a partner again. The two caudillos knew each other and needed each other.

As 2004 drew to a close, the PLC and FSLN expressed their mutual but different opposition to Bolaños not only with the legislative pyrotechnics show but also with another, deeper political agreement between their two leaders that provides continuity to the original pact legislatively consummated in 1999-2000. While the context for that first one was different, the two legislative benches turned both into law with similar discipline, this time even without the objections that the first one sparked in some FSLN legislators

Following on from the old pact

One of the most questionable and questioned results of the first reform—packing the top posts in the judicial and electoral branches of government and the Office of Comptroller General with Ortega and Alemán loyalists—explains the institutional problems that have continually tripped up President Bolaños in his three years in office. It also provides the institutional reasons behind the failure of his fight against corruption—as distinguished from the cultural reasons, which go far deeper and are the subject of an entirely different thesis.

After that pact five years ago, party “benches” began to function not only in the National Assembly, where they belong, but also in the Supreme Court, the Supreme Electoral Council and the Office of Comptroller General, in which two-party collusion was the order of the day. Only the executive branch, at that time still held by Alemán, was left unscathed. This time around, with Bolaños in the executive, it was the branch most affected, although for good measure the legislators also passed several laws affecting the economic pact Bolaños is pushing. It particularly takes aim at the bankers, which always scores a few political points in a country where, for numerous good reasons, no love is lost on this sector.

Today’s packet is still more structural than the earlier one, which many Alemán fans defended—and some still do—as a well-conceived deal to tame the FSLN’s “tire-burning tendencies” and thus bring peace and stability to the country. But the reality is that, just like yesterday’s pact, today’s agreement is based on shared corruption, new posts with high salaries and other perks and other concealed economic interests.

Arnoldo Alemán:
Centerpiece and motor force

After the municipal elections, the weakened PLC finally decided to go ahead with the new agreement, even knowing it gives the FSLN the opportunity to share substantial new arenas of power with it, largely because Ortega finally promised to release Alemán.

If all goes according to plan, Alemán’s liberty will come in stages. The first big step was on December 4, when he was transferred back to his hacienda to continue serving his sentence poolside and a Sandinista judge annulled all previous decisions on the lesser of his two convictions. That case, dubbed the Channel 6 trial by the media, was emblematic because it allowed us to meet two people who stood head and shoulders above the crowd for their honesty and courage: Judge Gertrudis Arias and then-Special Prosecuting Attorney Alberto Novoa, who is now the highly frustrated attorney general.

One more conviction still hangs over Alemán’s head: a 20-year sentence pending appeal for what came to be known as the Guaca case (loosely translated as stash or buried treasure), involving the embezzling and laundering of over $100 million in state funds. The general expectation is that Ortega will give the green light for Alemán to be freed on that case too once the constitutional reforms have been definitively approved in the new legislative session and the more than 50 new top public posts have been named by common accord between the two caudillos and are duly ratified. It is assumed that Alemán will not only be released but also exonerated of all charges and thus free to return to political life.

A freed Alemán will presumably ensure the split anti-Sandinista vote between pro- and anti-Alemán factions that is at the center of Ortega’s power-driven strategy. While Ortega will certainly pay his pound of political flesh for Alemán’s release, here in the land of selective forgetfulness it’s better to pay now, while his party is still riding high on post-election euphoria, so he can then get on with the business of promoting his own fifth presidential candidacy, so questioned by a majority of Sandinistas. In a few months, all indignation will have burned itself out as the waters close over Alemán’s theft of the equivalent of a year’s public health budget, washing it from the citizenry’s memory as if it had never happened.

Opinions and doubts

As is typical in post-revolutionary Nicaragua, none of this important legislation, even the constitutional reforms, was consulted with society as a whole. The few consultations that did take place in the National Assembly were superficial formalities. But it would be imprudent to claim, as some analysts have, that these reforms would necessarily have been met with the population’s rejection.

In truth, it would be hard to find anyone who thinks that the President alone should choose the ministers and ambassadors without ratification, or who opposes the idea of removing a minister who is not doing a good job, and so on right down the line of reforms. The critique by a number of analysts that the package’s impact on the presidential system represents a betrayal of the popular will is similarly fictitious. If the aim of the package were genuinely to increase the system’s democracy and development, as its designers claim, it would legitimately express popular will.

Let’s be realistic: what is questionably legitimate is not the package per se, but the motives of its designers and thus the likelihood of it being implemented with the nation’s interests in mind. If these changes had been submitted to a consultation in the real country, any suspicions would be directed to the legislation’s administrators.

A political cartoon in El Nuevo Diario depicted a legislator talking to a man on the street. “If reforms such as this work well in other countries, give me one good reason why they won’t here,” the legislator challenges him. The man, who is holding the long list of FSLN and PLC representatives who voted for it, responds, “I can give you nearly a hundred reasons.”

The general support for the content of the package enormously favors Alemán, Ortega and their respective inner circles, whose self-esteem has been so puffed up by the municipal election results that they are interpreting people’s lack of political culture, apathy, confusion or plain daily focus on survival as approval of whatever they do or undo. It also puts President Bolaños up against the wall, although he put himself there in the first place for his stubborn identification with his own social class.

How can a man who has never even thought to go down among the people to build an independent power base deal with the bases that both Alemán and Ortega have won and work hard to maintain? How can a man expect to have any credibility ushering in a “new era” while insensitively arguing to a disgusted population—nearly 70% of which lives below the poverty line—that it is both legal and legitimate for him to earn US$20,000 a month? Where does he find the gall to repeat it while the country is facing such difficult moments?

Imported firecrackers

The only wall still standing firm in President Bolaños crumbling edifice is the continued backing he receives from the US government and the rest of the international community that provides aid to Nicaragua. Given this, what happened following US Under-secretary of State Dan Fisk’s urgent visit to Managua a couple of days after the elections to order the PLC to dump Alemán and unite in an anti-Sandinista front belongs in the annals of diplomacy. The impertinent and arrogant Fisk got his comeuppance almost immediately. Only a few days after his visit, the FSLN was assured major new quotas of power, while Alemán left the hospital a quasi-free man, recovered control of the PLC and was paid congratulatory visits on his hacienda by many of Bolaños’ subordinates. To cap off Fisk’s worst nightmare, one of Alemán’s first priorities once the drunken Christmas celebrations are over and he has taken back up the PLC reins, will be to close off all roads within the PLC to Eduardo Montealegre, odds-on presidential favorite of both the US Embassy and President Bolaños.

The main response by Bolaños and his executive branch team to this whole turn of events has been to rattle sabers: the country will collapse if they do that, because our international aid will be cut off. President Bolaños promptly left the country again, apparently to bolster his claim in hopes of undermining ratification of the reforms in the second round. In declarations made at his request, the ambassador of the Low Countries let it be understood that the institutional changes could endanger aid from the European Union. But would such an aid reduction affect the inner circles of the FSLN and the PLC or even the government’s own inner circles? The fact is that it would only affect those who live in the real country.

The reforms have actually put European diplomacy in a tricky spot. How can it oppose the country’s new institu-tionality, the new checks and balances and the more evenly balanced branches of government without appearing to abandon its previous meddling, which has been precisely in the name of such “institutionality”?

What democracy?

Some analysts have warned that Nicaragua is in danger of “anti-democratic leaders undermining democracy using the resources of democracy and a fictitiously democratic discourse.” This is truly a danger, but truer yet is what is happening in the real country while the analysts are busy studying the legal one. Democracy in Nicaragua, whether with these or other leaders, is already little more than a third-rate theater where actors—male ones for the most part—from across the ideological spectrum, including those of the current government, can strut upon the stage without expressing anything.

What real democracy is there in a country where a machista dictatorship still reigns at home, where generations of women and men have had their education beaten and shouted into them, without dialogue or participation? What kind of democracy are we talking about in a country where the majority of couples share a roof and a bed in an ongoing exercise of unequal power, where women, wives included, are raped at will and love only exists in soap operas? What kind of democracy can exist in a country where half the children don’t attend school and half of those under two years old suffer anemia and malnutrition that is impeding their mental development? How will these children think about democracy and learn to act within it?

What democracy can there be in a country in which the God the majority believes in, the God preached by male representations, is an authoritarian and arbitrary male executor of unappealable decisions and feared for His punishment of “dissidents”? Can there be democracy with such violent households, with so little experience of love, with childhoods of such abandonment, with such a falsified God?

The future of the
patrimonial system

Some analysts have viewed the legislative package as a step toward “parlia-mentarianism,” a de facto parliamen-tarianism or a hybrid between parlia-mentarianism and presidentialism, at least a profound change in the old presidentialist system. They then conclude that a referendum is required to prevent the violation of the population’s right to elect the system it prefers for Nicaragua.

In the real country, the system that is actually functioning is and always has been “patrimonialist.” This could be hyper-reinforced when the FSLN and PLC start appointing all the top posts they will now get their hands on, and when they begin confirming or removing dozens of people from high posts in the Cabinet and the country’s diplomatic corps.

The package suggests an alternation of power in the different branches, with both leaders maintaining significant control over each branch and over each other. The two men need each other, as has been demonstrated since 1997.

If the package was designed to prepare for whatever post-electoral scenario awaits the two parties in the 2006 race, it’s also a warning shot by the two caudillo leaders to any who would pretend even minimally to democratize their respective parties, which they look on as personal patrimony. Seen from this perspective, the Convergence can expect to encounter strong resistance to any attempt to open up the FSLN’s legislative slate to its own candidates. Now more than ever, Ortega and Alemán require an army of disciplined and loyal legislators on their National Assembly benches to ensure that their “package” functions as it was designed to do.

Any hope for a way out?

Is the game over? The municipal electoral results substantially changed the national scenario, throwing up all manner of perplexities and questions. This scandalous package of unquestionably legal content but highly questionable legitimacy—given those who forged it and can be expected to administer it in their habitually skillful and dirty way—is yet another confirmation that there are no short-term solutions for Nicaragua. Many voted for Enrique Bolaños in 2001 because he was an untested entity and they had no desire to bring back any of the devils they knew. But his administration has demonstrated that it was unprepared or unable to provide the solution and has thus been consigned to history.

The “way out” being offered by the players in this crisis is aspirin-coated poison, or at best a placebo. “Have faith,” councils Bolaños; “with God’s help we will surmount the difficulties that the caudillos are causing,” while one of the caudillos thanks God for being back on his comfortable hacienda and the other for his overwhelming electoral victory. Which of the three will this God side with?

On another corner of dream street, a fourth player, Herty Lewites, the ever-smiling outgoing mayor of Managua, forecasts “positive surprises” for Christmas since, in these days of love and peace, Ortega, Bolaños and an as-yet unnamed representative from the PLC will meet with none other than the official representative of that God, Cardinal Obando.

What can we expect in 2005?

It is reasonable to expect international cooperation in general and the rough-riding US government in particular to come up with more concrete responses to the new situation that has so cornered the Bolaños government, but what might they be? The countries heading up globalization find it hard to deal with the real Nicaragua from a legalist posture. What tools will the United States and the European Union choose to shore up a government that they have backed so strongly and from which they have demanded—or at least received—so little?

These are crucial questions with no easy or obvious answers as we close this edition amid the traditional din of fireworks as the country submits to the bittersweet forgetfulness of the season’s vacation.

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The SAM-7 Missile Controversy
The article of the new arms law establishing that the National Assembly representatives must ratify he destruction or acquisition of weapons for the army, police and penitentiary system sparked particular controversy because it is directly related to the Soviet SAM-7 surface-to-air missiles in the Nicaraguan Army’s arsenal since the eighties. Earlier in 2004, President Bolaños had responded to a US “request” by instructing that 666 of these weapons be destroyed. When US Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld passed through Nicaragua in November, Bolaños promised him that the remainder would be destroyed in 2005.

On November 18, the same day the new law was approved, Bolaños issued a presidential decree ordering that 334 more missiles be destroyed, to which the FSLN legislators responded by submitting a writ to the Appeals Court to suspend the order. The court upheld the suspension in record time, at 9 am on November 24, but the missiles had been destroyed just two hours before. This leaves the army 1,100 more missiles, which the defense minister says have no resale value. According to the army spokesperson, Nicaragua’s defense could be guaranteed with only 400 such missiles.

The official reason Bolaños gives for wanting the SAM-7s destroyed is to achieve “the reasonable balance of forces in Central America,” a position he has championed with US backing. Honduran Defense Minister Federico Brevé Travieso pulled the rug out from under that argument, however, during the 14th ordinary meeting of the Central American Armed Forces Conference’s High Council, held in Managua in early December, when he stated that Bolaños’ decision was made “in response to a bilateral relationship with the United States” rather than any “balance of forces.” Clinching his point, he added that Honduras had not destroyed and does not intend to destroy its F-5 warplanes, to which he attributed only defensive capacity.

Brevé Travieso’s statements caused a stir in Nicaragua and outraged President Bolaños. Nicaragua’s army chief, General Javier Carrión, initially acknowledged that the destruction of the missiles was “a unilateral good will measure to encourage Central America” to commit itself to a reasonable balance of forces, which it has obviously not yet done, but he later tried to rescue Bolaños’ image by minimizing the Honduran minister’s declarations and nuancing his own.


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Alemán Nearly Free...

The transfer of Arnoldo Alemán to his hacienda on December 3 came about because the three judges on the Managua Appeals Court, all of whom answer to the FSLN, simply dismissed the Channel 6 corruption case, the first case investigated after Bolaños took office. All others implicated in it had been freed for various reasons nearly two years ago. Judge David Rojas, also answerable to the FSLN, backed the judges’ resolution and annulled all previous actions, thus definitively closing the case for which Alemán was serving his prison sentence. He is also sentenced to 20 years for money laundering in the Guaca case, but in that one, Judge Juana Méndez, who is also answerable to the FSLN,declared him an “invalid” prisoner due to his numerous ailments and thus with the right to house arrest.

The five men heading the Comptroller General’s Office, all of whom answer to the PLC or FSLN, took the first legal steps to closing the Guaca case and thus absolving Alemán on November 17, by issuing a resolution stating that the “Taiwan donation” case file, on which the Attorney General’s Office based the Guaca case, contains insufficient and irrelevant evidence against Alemán. The next and final step will be for Ortega to give the nod to the three Appeals Court judges to accept this resolution and dismiss the case.

Attorney General Alberto Novoa declared himself “dumbfounded and amazed” by the resolution absolving Alemán of any responsibility in the Guaca case. “As a professional lawyer for the past 32 years,” said Novoa, “I cannot explain what is happening to the laws in Nicaragua. Given that right is left here, Alemán’s fate is defined not by laws but by political talks. If they want to sink him, they do it with the evidence we’ve provided, and if they want to free him, they do it despite all the evidence presented or that could be presented.”

When Alemán was moved to his hacienda on December 3, after the dismissal of the Channel 6 case on which Novoa had acted as special prosecuting attorney, Novoa called it “a day of mourning for Nicaragua,” adding that “justice is wearing black armbands today. The law can’t respond to arbitrariness. Had it been up to the law, no other court in the world would have declared Alemán not guilty. Nicaragua’s judicial system isn’t functioning. And I am only one among 91% of Nicaraguans who don’t believe in that system.”

The attorney general announced that he would appeal to the Supreme Court for annulment. “At least it will be a challenge to the judicial branch’s highest entity. If they don’t act, it will go down in history. Our children have to know what happened.”

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