Envío Digital
Central American University - UCA  
  Number 283 | Febrero 2005



A Free-Wheeling Tragicomedy

The public disorder that began in November lasted longer than usual, ceasing only when political life was reordered around a “tripartite dialogue,” and then only because all participants already had what they wanted. President Enrique Bolaños was assured he could finish out his term, Daniel Ortega more power and a good shot at the presidency, and Arnoldo Alemán that he would be released soon.

Nitlápan-Envío team

The events of November, December and well into January of this year were called many things. Some branded them an “institutional catastrophe,” others the “destruction of the balance of power” among the government branches and still others “a definitive blow against democracy.” Those who were holding “the destiny of the nation” in their hands were asked to “call a truce,” act with a “national vision” and commit themselves “to the rule of law;” in short, to resolve the “crisis” in a constructive manner. And sure enough, in mid-January the “crisis” receded as suddenly as it had come, “stability” returned” and all the players sat down to “dialogue.”

The tragicomedy they had performed pulled a very small audience since most preferred the more upbeat celebrations of the Immaculate Conception, Christmas and then the New Year. Those of us forced to follow the unfolding tragicomedy were once more reminded that we enjoy a merely formal electoral democracy, one that functions without social consensus in a society with no capacity to force those it elected to stick to any script favoring the nation.

Let’s first review the scenes in this spectacle, and then try to interpret the disorder.

The origins

The real origins of the disorder go way back, but the more immediate manifestation began last November 9, the day the FSLN and PLC legislators, acting as two armies marching under the same orders, began reforming the Constitution and pushing through laws with record speed—14 laws in 4 days—before Christmas recess. Among other things, the legislation created new institutions responsible for strategic areas: public services, property and social security. Other laws in a package previously agreed upon by negotiators for FSLN leader Daniel Ortega and jailed PLC leader Arnoldo Alemán responded to various pending economic and social problems, which included changes to the 2005 budget bill submitted by President Enrique Bolaños. For good measure, they even reformed the President’s veto capacity.

Unlike the similar flurry of legislative activity at the end of 2000 to legalize decisions the same two caudillos had negotiated while Alemán was still President, this time the constitutional reforms and new laws particularly affected the executive branch, especially the President, by shifting important executive faculties to the National Assembly, prefiguring a semi-parliamentary system.

The reactions

President Bolaños initially claimed he was “examining the situation,” but in fact he nervously swung from one tactical extreme to another. His first response was a verbal offensive against what he termed a “collective dictatorship,” a “constitutional coup d’état” and a legislative “superpower.” He opened himself up to the greatest backlash when he stated that he would oppose all the reforms “by hook or by crook.” Starting with the hook, he launched a legal offensive, involving declarations from empathetic judicial advisers, formal petitions for judicial protection, “anonymous” appeals to the Supreme Court and proposed a public referendum on the reforms that was never acted on.

The crook was a diplomatic offensive, with some foreign ambassadors warning that aid funds were being endangered and the Central American Presidents reiterating their total backing for Bolaños. Called upon for the second time in a matter of months, the OAS declared itself on alert regarding the Nicaraguan case. In an interview with Nicaraguan journalist Carlos Fernando Chamorro published in El Nuevo Diario, Assistant Under-secretary of State for Western Hemisphere Affairs Dan Fisk warned that CAFTA, increased aid to Nicaragua and more specifically funding through the White House’s Millennium Account could be endangered by the country’s current political situation. Also kicking in on behalf of President Bolaños, 19 US senators and members of the House from both parties, including Democratic liberals Christopher Dodd, Tom Harkin and Edward Kennedy, sent him a letter of “firm support for your democratic principles, your constitutional position and the rule of law in your country.” While there is something slightly strange about US legislators defending the retention of what many have considered excessively strong presidential powers in Nicaragua’s political system, it is important to realize that these three men could be crucial to the FSLN in the event of a Sandinista electoral victory in 2006.

The emergency

From the onset of the disorder, the President continually flirted with the idea of declaring a state of emergency. With sobering declarations and other more surreptitious signals, the Army dissuaded him more than once from acting on the idea. It was senseless because at no time was there even a hint of an impending uprising, tumult, popular disturbance or even street demonstration favoring either the legislators who were stripping away some of the President’s faculties or the President who was being stripped. Only the upper echelons of power were either interested in or worried about the disorder, since it had no bearing on the fight for survival and closing of opportunities that the majority of Nicaraguans deal with on a daily basis.

The consultation

Hoping to involve the population in what was going on, some political personalities quickly formed what they called a “Movement for Nicaragua.” They backed Bolaños’ referendum idea arguing that the legislators were changing the country’s political system and thus violating the “popular will” expressed in the election of President Bolaños with all the faculties he would need to govern.

Although people always tell pollsters that they want to be consulted (who would ever say no to such a question?), the referendum idea and the call to take to the streets to demand it didn’t catch on, as was evident in a poorly attended demonstration on January 10. It was a clear sign that the tragicomedy was only playing in the theater of politics, whose orchestra seats are reserved for those who work in the theater or thrive on its melodramas.

The cardinal

Another sub-plot that got woven into the main disorder was a new “crisis” around the person of Cardinal Miguel Obando y Bravo and his eventual replacement as archbishop of Managua. While the cardinal presented his resignation to the Vatican three years ago, when he turned 75, followers of both Ortega and Alemán have since accused President Bolaños of maneuvering to get Obando relieved of his post, and they repeated it now. Bolaños felt compelled to swear yet again on the graves of his parents and son that he had never been involved in such a move.

Both PLC and FSLN leaders took time off from their work on the constitutional reforms to make repeated declarations in favor of His Eminence, pay him courtesies and propose homages, all to drive the wedge deeper between Obando and Bolaños and paint the cardinal as the only person capable of turning disorder into “peace.”

The dialogue

Throughout the period, “dialogue” was the magic word for creating order out of disorder. Constantly attacked by his Liberal and Sandinista rivals for his “hook or crook” warning, which they chose to interpret as the statement of an unbending and power-hungry leader prepared to use questionable means against the reforms, Bolaños countered by inviting the PLC and FSLN to a national dialogue with Cardinal Obando as witness. As on previous occasions, the President proposed including some of the unarguably important ideas that are the closest to his heart: single-term presidency with no reelection and a reduction in the number of legislative representatives, who would run as individuals rather than on a party slate. This time he proposed legislation that would establish an obligatory referendum for any constitutional reform. As expected, both the PLC and the FSLN rejected not only the issues but the dialogue itself, arguing that it would be better to put it off until January, that it wasn’t urgent, that the “conditions” weren’t right…

The closing of ranks

After the legislators had pushed through their package of new laws and constitutional reforms with the inexorable force of a juggernaut, they gathered for the pre-Christmas closing National Assembly session on December 15. They were accompanied by top officials from the judicial branch, the electoral branch, the Comptroller General’s Office and the Public Prose-cutor’s Office, as well as Vice President José Rizo. Topping their previous anti-Bolaños statements, the legislators now presented a joint declaration, endorsed by those same officials, accusing the President of “promoting the rupture of the country’s constitutional and legal order.” Cardinal Obando, keynote speaker for this unprecedented parliamentary session, received a huge ovation.

The dinner

Less than a week later, President Bolaños invited Daniel Ortega and Cardinal Obando to his home for a “dinner” on December 21. If the expression on the faces of the three was any indication, it didn’t go at all well. Resigned to the failed gesture and what it meant, Bolaños told the press afterwards, “I leave the results to God.”

Ortega had preceded the dinner with a two-hour chat with Arnoldo Alemán to show Bolaños what the disorder was all about and who he was dealing with—just in case the President hadn’t caught his earlier messages. Since December 4, when appeals judges loyal to Ortega annulled one of the sentences for corruption hanging over Alemán’s head, the prisoner had been back serving his 20-year sentence for a separate money laundering conviction on his hacienda in the municipality of El Crucero, called El Chile.

The sword over Bolaños’ head

Another subplot within the larger disorder was the accusation of electoral crimes hanging over Bolaños’ own head. This case had triggered the previous disorder, last October, when the Comptroller General’s Office issued a declaration urging the President’s removal from office for failing to disclose his election financing as ordered.

Each time President Bolaños made any move to prevent the reforms, either Ortega or his loyal judge, David Rojas, who now has the Bolaños case on his docket, reminded him that the sword was still hanging there, ready to fall.

The Christmas festivities

As one might expect, those behind the current disorder dedicated the Christmas holidays to getting together at parties, dinners and other groaning boards of food and drink to discuss the next steps. Meanwhile, Bolaños and his loyal government officials intensified their lobbying of the disconcerted diplomatic corps. Bolaños was against the ropes and time was against him, because the National Assembly was due to reopen on January 9, and the first order of business for the PLC and FSLN benches after electing a new board would be to pass the constitutional reforms for the second, definitive time.

The most festive gatherings took place by the dozens at El Chile, with over a hundred Liberal politicians, legislators, judges, comptrollers and Supreme Court justices requesting permission from the Sandinista judges on his case—and always receiving it in the proper “Christmas spirit”—to visit the prisoner, express their friendship and, of course, receive his orders.

In those same days, retired General Humberto Ortega, Daniel’s brother, was seen visiting President Bolaños and Cardinal Obando on the pretext of giving them a copy of his new book, La epopeya de la insurrección (The Epic of the Insurrection).

The amnesty proposal

Yet another subplot woven seamlessly into the disorder was the possibility of an amnesty to release Arnoldo Alemán from his hacienda-prison with a clean record. While the FSLN was busy denouncing a “conspiracy” between Bolaños and the US Embassy, various politicians, business people and professional pundits were heard suggesting that an amnesty for Alemán would encourage “national reconciliation” and ensure national “stability.”

The Central American Court
v. the Nicaraguan court

On January 6, in an attempt to pull off a coup with his diplomatic offensive, President Bolaños released a surprise resolution of preventive measures from the Central American Supreme Court of Justice (CCJ)—a virtually inoperative regional institution with credibility to match—ordering Nicaragua’s legislators to suspend both the constitutional reforms and the still-pending process to remove the President. A somber-faced Bolaños warned that the National Assembly representatives would be outside the law if these two processes were not halted. Then, donning a smile, he assured the country that everything had now been resolved “by proper means” (read not by hook or by crook) and that the atmosphere was again “propitious.” Full stop.

The coup was a failure. In less than 24 hours, Nicaragua’s own Supreme Court, whose justices all take their orders from either Ortega or Alemán, held an emergency session in which they resolved to ignore the CCJ resolution: no outside interference would halt the reforms made in full conformity with national law.

The pact of El Chile

That same day, January 7, will go down in local history as a day of infamy. In another meeting at El Chile, Ortega and Alemán signed a Declaration for “democracy,” “national sovereignty,” the “struggle against poverty” and “peace,” thus sealing the agreements they had been hammering out for months that had culminated in the legislative offensive against Bolaños. A pathetic photo of the two smiling caudillos surrounded by their closest cronies will help preserve the pact of El Chile in the collective memory.

Fresh out of maneuvers and with no effective backing, President Bolaños began to think more seriously about declaring a state of emergency.

Three big days for
the National Assembly

January 9. The legislators who answer to Ortega (38) and Alemán (45: the 43 on the PLC bench and 2 of the Christian Way’s 4) opened the new legis-lative session by excluding the remaining 9 from any post on the Assembly’s directive board. By prior agreement, they elected a Sandinista, René Núñez, to preside over the legislative branch for the first time since the FSLN’s electoral defeat in 1990. As this was going on inside the Assembly building, an equally unimaginable event was unfolding outside. A crowd of backers of both Alemán and Ortega mingled together, the FSLN’s red and black banners interspersed with the PLC’s solid red ones, as both sets of supporters shouted common slogans in celebration of the election and the accords of El Chile.

January 10. President Bolaños appeared before the Assembly, its new board seated on the dais, to deliver his annual report. While his language was conciliatory, he had not left his arrogance at home. He repeated five times in his speech that Nicaragua had never been better in the past 25 years than during his “New Era” government. Not a single representative applauded, though Bolaños’ ministers, present on Assembly floor, gave him repeated ovations. Outside, dozens of people demonstrated to demand a referendum on the reforms.

January 11. Given that approval of the unamended and unde-bated constitutional reforms was imminent, rumors began to fly that President Bolaños would decree a state of emergency, close the National Assembly, jail the legislators and suspend all constitutional guarantees. But the army reportedly disabused him of that idea as well.

The agreement

On January 12, finally convinced that the army would not intervene on behalf of any such schemes, Bolaños signed a National Dialogue Agreement with Daniel Ortega to put an end to the disorder. The first and most pivotal point of the accord was a commitment by the PLC and the FSLN to let Bolaños finish out his term in office. The other central point was that Bolaños agreed to accept the reforms and the PLC and FSLN to apply them in “consensus” with the President.

After the signing, Ortega evoked Nicaragua’s famous 19th-century poet Rubén Darío: they had opted for “the olive branch of peace” and cast aside the “steel of war.” Bolaños appeared satisfied. Peace, he said, had finally come “thanks to the prayers of the suffering people of Nicaragua to Christ and the Virgin Mary.” Once this “peace” was signed, Ortega went back to El Chile to debrief Alemán about what had been agreed and Alemán signed off on the agreement.

The UN’s “good offices”

That same night, those of us whose job it is to sift through and try to make sense of this unfolding disorder learned to our surprise that the three lead actors in the tragicomedy had actually been “dialoguing” behind the scenes for a whole month with active mediation by a delegate appointed by the UN’s resident representative in Nicaragua. This revelation left the civil society “leaders” who, spurred on by all the inflammatory speeches, threats of catastrophe and proposals for salvaging dialogues, had filled the media with dramatic calls to “defend the rule of law” with egg on their faces.

The rupture

The fact is that the rule of law had not been violated in any strict sense; the legislators were totally within their right to reform the Constitution and they followed all the correct procedures in doing so. Another issue entirely is whether their political motivations had any defensible merit. On January 13, the PLC and FSLN legislators approved the controversial reforms in the second round. The Constitution and Nicaragua’s political system were officially altered, shifting Nicaragua from a strong presidential-based regime to a semi-parliamentary one, although it is anyone’s guess for how long, because while anything can happen—and usually does—in Nicaragua, little lasts.

Whatever one might think of the reforms, or more importantly, how and to what end they will be implemented by such self-serving parties, the immediate problem was that they were passed without Bolaños’ “consensus.” Not without reason, the President interpreted this as a grave rupture of the agreement he had signed with Ortega less than 24 hours before. Calling a state of emergency was once again an option.

After a night rife with rumors and powerful declarations, Bolaños and his ministers, Ortega and his legislators and the PLC’s legislators finally met on January 14 to discuss the pending national dialogue. The meeting, blessed by Cardinal Obando, lasted six hours, and one of the key issues for the PLC was to insist that Alemán be allowed to attend the dialogue. In a debate that might have led an outsider to think legalities had something to do with his participation, jurists scrapped over whether Alemán was in full enjoyment of his civic rights or not. Bolaños did not fail to thank the Christ of Esquipulas and the Virgin María Auxiliadora that all had ended in peace.

The tripartite dialogue between the executive branch of government, the PLC and the FSLN kicked off a few days later, on January 19, without Alemán’s participation.

Why all this drama?

So far just the facts, a storyboard of the tragicomedy; now, basic compass readings to guide us through its tacking course, to see where we are being taken and why.

The legislative alliance between the FSLN and the PLC, which is the major political novelty of the moment, is largely explained by the precariousness of Bolaños’ administration, although there are other, more obscure reasons. Elected on the PLC ticket, Enrique Bolaños ended up without a party from day one, when he decided to go after Alemán. In a year he had succeeded in getting him stripped of his parliamentary immunity, tried and convicted of corruption with the FSLN’s help. That removed Alemán from the head of the PLC legislative bench and the presidency of the National Assembly, the space from which Alemán had intended to co-govern during Bolaños’ entire term. But what the President seems not to have calculated was that Alemán would still control the PLC legislators, not to mention the party as a whole.

Unable to govern without allies in the National Assembly and still hoping to win the PLC away from Alemán’s caudillista grip, Bolaños had to set aside his visceral anti-Sandinista sentiments to ally with Daniel Ortega. Ortega ordered the FSLN bench to add its votes to those of the few legislators loyal to Bolaños to approve several priority economic laws demanded by the IMF and ultimately to unseat Alemán. With the majority PLC bench opposed, one breakaway vote by the independents would have called the game. It’s never been clear what pound of flesh Ortega exacted for those votes beyond making the FSLN appear as the champion of stability, good governance and, above all, the war on corruption.

The FSLN’s alliance with the executive branch lasted until late 2003, when the United States ordered Bolaños to break it because it was putting too much of a positive spin on Ortega’s profile, and to make common cause with the PLC to ensure the FSLN’s defeat in the 2004 municipal elections. Bolaños followed the US strategy to the letter, maneuvering to ensure that the PLC would control the legislative board in 2004, but it was too late for him to make amends for his unpardonable sin against their still powerful leader. The only thing Alemán’s followers wanted was his release. As long as Alemán continued to serve his sentence, Bolaños would continue to be isolated. And isolated he has been ever since, not least because it is Ortega, not Bolaños, who holds the key to Alemán’s release.

Why only now?

The PLC-FSLN alliance that has now blossomed into the pact of El Chile was born in January 2004, when Bolaños broke with the FSLN and unsuccessfully sought the PLC’s support. Since then, Bolaños has governed with the support of the international community alone, particularly the United States. While some would argue that part of his domestic isolation resulted from a principled struggle against corruption that had a very high political cost, others say that his target was always Alemán, not corruption, and that this is what he is paying the price for. But his isolation neither started nor ended with his war on corruption, in either of its interpretations. It was aggravated both by his pandering to US anti-Sandinista interference and by his arrogant entrepreneurial style that demonstrated little diplomatic finesse when dealing with Nicaraguan union leaders, judges, legislators, comptrollers, electoral magistrates and others he rightly viewed as opposition, not to mention teachers and other low wage sectors or the outright poor, for whom he seems incapable of empathy. He showed no signs of listening to or cultivating organized civil society, which had provided so much support to his fight against the corruption Alemán had institutionalized; he only tried to manipulate them into “participating” as a silent back-up each time he found himself in institutional trouble.

So why did this disorder only erupt at the end of the year if all these conditions—an isolated President, a sidelined FSLN and a resentful PLC—had been in place since early 2004, all against the backdrop of an increasingly critical economic situation? Although the President’s errors had been fueling the idea of reprisal and a move to grab more power throughout the year, the PLC and FSLN agreed to make their move after the November municipal elections, once the correlation of forces was clear. Those election results were the final detonator. The FSLN won a sweeping victory, thanks in part to its alliance with the Convergence and in part to the divided Liberal vote. The PLC suffered a painful loss of municipalities, thanks in part to Alemán’s inability to control the infighting of second-tier leaders from prison, in part to his decision not to maintain previous alliances with other anti-Sandinista sectors, and in no small part to the same divided Liberal vote. And APRE, the alliance Bolaños cobbled together as an alternative to “the two caudillos,” went down to utter defeat, winning even fewer municipalities than the Conservatives, APRE’s largest party, had won in 2001 running alone. In synthesis, Bolaños was on the mat, the PLC leaders realized just how much they needed Alemán’s immediate presence, and the FSLN had never been in a better position to call the shots since losing the 1990 elections.

Is it the same old pact?

The Ortega-Alemán pact of El Chile—the centerpiece of the current tragicomedy—is the result of different, but compatible interests. And, as just explained, the correlation of forces was different this time around than when the same caudillos started crafting the pact that culminated in 2000 with laws and legal reforms eliminating virtually all other political parties and creating new high-paying, top-level posts for loyal members of their parties in the judicial branch, Comptroller General’s Office and Supreme Electoral Council.

Back then, Alemán was in power and the PLC bench had an absolute majority in the National Assembly. The PLC seemed so strong that almost everyone thought the Liberals would rule for another 20 years, and with Alemán at its head for good measure. The pact further strengthened presidential power and forced a bipartite system through exclusionary reforms to the electoral laws. What the FSLN got out of it, in addition to mutual guarantees of impunity for the known corrupt within both parties, was a mechanism to defend and expand spaces of power for its elites within this “Liberalism forever.” Corruption became institutionalized and people’s needs went down the drain, a tragedy camouflaged by the massive reconstruction funding granted to Nicaragua following Hurricane Mitch.

In contrast, the correlation of forces influencing the new pact of El Chile favors the FSLN, whose leadership elites have all graduated from advanced hands-on courses in manipulation of the law. Moreover, it favors Ortega himself, largely because he holds the key to Alemán’s future as a prisoner, which augments his sense of power. By dangling that key frequently but not using it, he has kept the PLC riddled with fractures that only the sheer force of their caudillo leader’s style will be able to repair. This has convinced the PLC elites that their party can survive the crisis of Bolaños’ “betrayal” and go on to defeat the FSLN in next year’s presidential election only if Alemán is freed and returns to patch up the tattered party. In the meantime, Ortega is making full use of the absence of a cohesive opposing political force to shore up his power and pave the way for his own return to government.

What is the common ground?

A new and very peculiar parliament has emerged out of these diverse, but coinciding interests. The constitutional reforms to reduce the Presi-dent’s power have the same general objective as the 1995 ones, which were pushed through by an amalgam of legislators who had left their respective party benches, the FSLN above all, and were beholden to nobody. But the situation was different enough a decade ago that both the FSLN and the PLC opposed them at the time.

Given Nicaraguan politicians’ penchant for shortsighted political maneuvers, one could be forgiven for assuming the current reforms were intended to affect Bolaños, but that does not seem to be the case. The underlying aim is structural, in that the new reforms pave the way for the two parties to alternate in power. Depending on how close a race they run, the loser could potentially have greater control over the ruling party’s behavior from the National Assembly than in the past. But more to the point, no matter which one wins, it will now be possible to use the Assembly, whose seats will unquestionably be occupied by handpicked legislators loyal to their respective caudillos, to control any damage should another “Bolaños” land in the presidential offices by choice, accident or neglect.

The reforms give the legislators the faculty to approve the appointment of all ministers and ambassadors, summon them to answer charges of alleged wrongdoing and even remove them. Still more importantly, the reforms, new laws and institutions they created now give them control over key economic areas. They will have control of social security, with its accumulated funds, as well as a newly-created state regulatory agency for the energy, telecommunications and water and sanitation services, only the last of which has not yet been privatized to trans-national capital. They have also given themselves the task of “resolving” all pending property problems, which have been the source of the country’s main economic conflicts for the past quarter century.

And what are the concessions?

This peculiar majority of legislative rivals-turned-allies also passed many other laws that undeniably benefit different segments of the population. Just for starters, they made budget reassignments to increase the salaries of tens of thousands of miserably paid public teachers and health workers, increased the transfer to municipal governments, and passed a new cooperatives law, a law to defend credit card users, another obliging the contracting of national rather than international consultants and yet another to protect workers under the free trade agreements, guaranteeing their acquired labor rights. Further socially oriented legislation has been promised.

Why are the Liberals so passively accepting some of these laws, which are theoretically “left-wing.”? Because the deal is that Alemán will go free in exchange. With this new infamy apparently a given, the FSLN is stockpiling legislative ammunition, in case it ends up still in the opposition. And, of course, this strategy works just as well for the PLC if it’s left holding the short stick. Thus, the PLC and the FSLN are both making mutual concessions based on an opposition party psychology. Whichever one occupies the presidential office will have less power than before, but will be sure of the power it has.

This move virtually guarantees that neither Ortega nor Alemán will allow anyone on their list of legislative candidates whose party loyalty and discipline is even suspected of being short of absolute. This, in turn, creates a problem for the National Convergence, the group of smaller parties and political notables that has been allied with the FSLN since 2001 and accounted for a significant number of its municipal victories in last November’s elections. Since they had reason to expect that proving important to the FSLN would result in slots on the FSLN’s legislative slates, it will be interesting to see how they deal with this new turn of events.

Amnesty for Alemán?

The pact of El Chile was structured so well and showed itself so unstoppable that it revived US government fears of the kind of protagonist Daniel Ortega would be if he returned to government. Some PLC members leaked a rumor that, as an antidote to that fear, US officials had offered Alemán amnesty in exchange for breaking the pact with the FSLN, particularly not approving the constitutional changes in the second round or giving the National Assembly gavel to a Sandinista. Bolaños sent his labor minister to El Chile to make that offer, reportedly accompanied by the US Embassy’s political adviser, although the Embassy denied there had been any contact with Alemán. That denial may be true, but seemingly not for want of trying: Alemán responded through his wife that if either President Bolaños or Ambassador Barbara Moore had something to say to him, they’d have to do it in person.

Arnoldo Alemán doesn’t just want out of jail. He wants to recover all his legitimacy and his civil rights, so he can return to politics and surely so he can be the PLC’s presidential candidate in the 2006 elections. He also wants to give the country and the world the impression that it was all a political scheme to sully him. The only way to expunge his record of all wrongdoing is through the courts, and only Ortega holds that key.

Why give it to him?

Nobody doubts that Alemán will get out of prison with a clean slate thanks to the tragicomic disorder in which Nicaragua is mired. Ortega owes him that in exchange for all he has gotten in the new pact. And he apparently has no trouble allowing Alemán to head the PLC again, calculating that the PLC caudillo’s inevitably deteriorated leadership will keep the anti-Sandinista vote divided enough for Ortega to beat him in the presidential race. What suits Ortega best, however, is to put off the moment of Alemán’s release for as long as possible and find a way to avoid paying the political cost for that decision alone.

Bolaños also needs amnesty or its equivalent for Alemán, even though it would shatter his already tarnished image as the warrior against corruption. To be more specific, he needs to have a hand in negotiating it in such a way that the electoral crimes accusation, astutely included by the Sandi-nista judge in the “guaca” money laundering case against Alemán, is no longer hanging over his head and those of his closest appointees when they lose their immunity upon leaving office in January 2007.

So, who will pay the highest political cost for Alemán’s amnesty: Daniel Ortega or Enrique Bolaños? In the end, every single member of society will pay it because all will be victims of a moral and ethical defeat whose bitter aftertaste will linger for a long time.

If everyone’s a loser, who won?

The first topic of debate in the tripartite dialogue was the 2005 budget reforms, which was “resolved” in favor of the FSLN-PLC despite warnings from the World Bank and threats from the International Monetary Fund that unless a viable alternative is offered, the increased budget deficit would lead to suspension of the program negotiated by the government with the IMF last November. The legislators said they were analyzing the eighth new tax reform in seven years, aimed at specific sectors such as banks, the plethora of new gambling casinos and possibly even the mining sector, while the country’s leading fiscal specialist listed several measures that he assured would bring in double the proposed budget gap. It can be assumed that the international agencies will end up mollified.

The second major issue discussed, also with a “solution” favoring the legislators’ side of the table, was the election of a dozen top-level government posts including new comptrollers, Supreme Court justices and electoral branch magistrates.

What will happen?

This so-called national dialogue is affecting the nation without in any way seeking its input, partly because all three participants have already obtained their number-one priority. Bolaños is at peace because he will be able to finish his term. Ortega has more power because his party got more top-level government posts and he beefed up his grassroots credentials through the social laws, all of which gives him a better shot at the presidency. And Alemán sees a political future before him again because he was promised amnesty.

Nonetheless, the dialogue will predictably continue over the year—albeit in fits and starts and with numerous impasses, truces and reconciliations—because none of the three parties has anything to gain by walking away from it. Isolated and now the lamest of ducks, Bolaños and his team can’t walk out even in an attempt to torpedo the dialogue, because, with nothing to offer, their only way to learn what the two caudillos are up to is by participating. As for the other two, the one who gets up from the table first loses—either what it still hoped to gain or at the very least its image.

Furthermore, they all still have more concessions they want to wring out of it. Bolaños still hasn’t gotten the accusations of electoral crimes definitively closed. The FSLN, having already paid a high political price for the pact of El Chile—not to mention the even larger one waiting for it when Alemán goes free—needs to extort even more social laws out of its rivals to secure its image as a “revolutionary” party concerned “for the poor.” And the PLC needs to keep maneuvering until it gets in practice what it has been promised: Alemán’s walking papers with maximum legitimacy, either in the form of an amnesty unanimously approved by all 92 National Assembly members, signed by Bolaños and blessed by Cardinal Obando, or a definitive court dismissal for lack of evidence, also with the cardinal’s blessing.

Is there legitimacy?

If the actors in this tragicomedy won their own “stability” with this dialogue following their self-made disorder, another round has been lost in the interminable battle for the country’s stability and the legitimacy of its institutions. The three major protagonists of this theatrical performance have also lost even more of their already scant legitimacy. Daniel Ortega, enemy of any order that doesn’t favor his interests, is one of the main people responsible for the country’s institutional disaster. Arnoldo Alemán is both a national and international symbol of white-collar crime perpetrated from and against the state. And Enrique Bolaños has been pilfering away the legitimacy granted by Nicaraguan voters and significant international support through his erratic, insensitive and arrogant governing style.

This disorder revealed even more clearly that all three men base their actions strictly on a self-constructed legality designed to serve their own interests. This game has limits, because legality without legitimacy does not generate the kind of social respect that provides durability to institutions or to any political agreement in a system presumed to be democratic. This tragicomedy has evidenced more clearly than ever before the illegitimacy hiding behind the legalistic masks of the leading actors.

Where are we heading?

"Politically correct” behavior such as passing laws and engaging in dialogues creates illusions of legitimacy that cannot camouflage the barren, directionless course we are on, guided by politicians who stir up one disorder after another like unruly, spoiled children fighting over a shiny new toy. Where are we and where are we headed? Until we deal with these questions seriously and responsibly, nothing will change.

And dealing with them inevitably implies understanding that there are no short-term solutions. There will never be a solution for the problems of countries such as ours without a gradual but radical change in the value system on which our economies and political systems are based.

Nicaragua’s backwardness needs and deserves to be changed. The life and the dignity of the majority of the Nicaraguan population that is living in poverty depend on it, as does the country’s very survival in this uncertain 21st century. This tragicomedy in Nicaragua is unfolding at the very moment in which Washington’s international position is consolidating following George W. Bush’s reelection. It’s no time to be squabbling over toys.

How and with whom?

How can we do this and with whom? No real changes appear possible in the foreseeable future, although there will be no shortage of actors willing to get up on stage to compete for a piece of the action. They are already beginning to appear with still a year and a half to go before the 2006 electoral campaign. Like mushrooms after a downpour, there are already 11 candidates for the presidency of this currently dead-end republic and there could be more. The main and most acute dispute over party candidacies is taking place within the FSLN, between Daniel Ortega and former mayor of Managua Herty Lewites. Adding to the conflict, Sandinista economist Alejandro Martínez Cuenca has thrown his hat into the ring as well. Within the PLC, pro-Alemán legislators Wilfredo Navarro and Noel Ramírez have also made their presidential aspirations known, along with Vice President José Rizo and former foreign minister Francisco Aguirre Sacasa. Still within the PLC, although sparking divisions in its structures, former Bolaños minister and banker Eduardo Montealegre is also campaigning, with the dazzlingly creative slogan “Let’s go with Eduardo.” For APRE, both National Assembly representative Miguel López Baltizón and minister José Antonio Alvarado have said they plan to run. Last on the list for now is failed banker and obscure businessman Haroldo Montealegre, who is running for a handful of Liberal fractions. We could be in for a long and painful performance.

The leaders of any genuine renewal in Nicaragua, on the other hand, will be marked by an ability and willingness to tell the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth about the immense crisis our country is going through. They will not be content to administer today’s reality, but will be men and women, surely young ones, who have come to understand politics as the art of constructing new realities. Until this new leadership emerges, however, we may be forced to sit through countless new acts of the national tragicomedy.

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A Free-Wheeling Tragicomedy


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