Lessons from the Teachers …and the Former Mayor
Our teachers and Herty Lewites were last month’s protagonists.
With their strike, teachers across the nation showed us, yet again, just how profoundly indecent Nicaragua’s public salary scale really is. And in defending his right to vie for the FSLN’s presidential nomination, Managua’s former mayor showed us just how authoritarian, arrogant and intolerant the group that has taken over the FSLN really is. The teachers’ effort won them a $40 salary hike. Might Lewites’ efforts have a
positive outcome too?
The new school semester opened late this year. Nicaragua’s pathetically underpaid public school teachers, tired of asking for justifiable raises without ever getting any response, finally called a national strike. It took three weeks of intense negotiating, but they finally won a 700-córdoba ($40) monthly raise retroactive to December.
It was a small financial result for such a huge effort—although the shameful fact is that such a tiny raise increased their current base salary by nearly half—but the strike also contributed to the “political schooling” Nicaragua so urgently needs. The lesson in this case was about the obscene inequity in the country’s state salary structure, which favors an unneeded number of unnecessarily high-paid top officials, most of whom work at the service not of the public but of the party bosses who appointed them.
Underpaid and unrecognizedIf the dramatic national education situation continues uncorrected for many more years, Nicaragua will end up with no role in the world. To the worrying data offeed by economist Adolfo Acevedo in this same issue of envío must be added the impoverished condition of the nation’s public teachers.
They have gone from being a prestigious social sector with a relatively acceptable living standard some years ago to being one of the most depressed sectors with the most depressing living conditions in the entire country. Before the strike, the average basic salary of primary school teachers, 80% of whom are women, was equivalent to $85 a month. The poorest-paid of their Central American colleagues earn over three times that ($275 in Honduras, $407 in Costa Rica, $462 in Guatemala, $515 in Panama and $564 in El Salvador). The average basic salary for secondary teachers is barely less insulting: $97 (compared to $325 in Honduras, $423 in Costa Rica, $486 in Guatemala, $621 in El Salvador and $630 in Panama). According to a report on Nicaragua’s educational process prepared by UNESCO’s Partnership for Educational Revitalization in the Americas (PREAL), one of the consequences of this abuse is that “ever fewer youths choose to study to be a teacher at any level. Economic and social recognition of the teaching profession by both society and the government is falling constantly.”
And with inequity comes open disrespect. When it was proposed during the strike to resolve the conflict by reducing the salary of top government officials, Miguel Ángel García, the new education minister, complained that they had already reduced his salary in other top posts he has held. He would only accept a new cut, he said, if he still earned enough money to live “decently.” García currently earns fifty times more than the teachers he represents and directs.
Who should bear the burden:The teachers’ strike, which involved camp-ins, blocked highways, hunger strikes, marches and massive demonstrations, got underway right after the FSLN and PLC legislators raised the 2005 public spending budget ceiling that the executive branch and the International Monetary Fund had agreed upon by another 600 million córdobas. Where would the funds come from?
Teachers or the tax dodgers?
Sustained pressure from the teachers finally pried open the door to a new tax reform to cover the deficit, but not before triggering another round of the debate about the luxurious salaries of a privileged group of government officials. President Bolaños’ contribution to the whole affair was his usual “verbal terrorism”: the spending gap would “derail” Nicaragua from the IMF agreement and bring chaos; Nicaragua would lose 3 billion córdobas in loans and donations; populism would “pull the country apart”… Unable to move the legislators, Bolaños then whined, “I can’t go beg the IMF, scratch their tummy and cry to them, irresponsibly asking them to certify that budget for me.”
Bolaños always opts for intimidating threats about the financial catastrophes that would befall the country if it got into the hands of anyone other than him and the group he represents. It is terrorism because the government knows perfectly well that the IMF agreement was based on conservative national income estimates, so there was in fact room to raise the spending ceiling. The government also knows—although preferring to ignore it while the IMF often stresses it—that there are privileged tax dodgers in Nicaragua plus innumerable unjustified exonerations that could and should be eliminated. According to tax law expert Julio Francisco Báez, current exonerations amount to 4% of the country’s gross domestic product.
The new tax reform will be the fourth during this administration. Experts view them as shortsighted “patches” and insist that the only thing really needed is to implement the much-heralded tax law. At least this new reform is aimed at banks, casinos, the mining sector, tourism and other groups that pull huge earnings and enjoy many privileges. It’s time for them to pay their fair tax share.
Posturing and empty rhetoricThe debate about state sector salary inequity is like those big box office hits that inspire new sequels every year or so. The script this year has several new twists.
“If they insist on shouting so, what we should give them is throat lozenges,” commented President Bolaños with an insensitivity unmatched since Marie Antoinette impatiently responded, “Then let them eat cake!” to the explanation that the hordes were rebelling at the palace gates because they had no bread.
Could the strikers hold out against the President’s mockery and the education minister’s inflexibility? Where would the resources come from to pay for the crumbs the teachers were demanding?
Daniel Ortega opportunistically led the way by claiming that his legislative representatives would pledge the 444,000 córdobas (some US$27,000) they receive annually for “social works” as a contribution to the teachers’ salary hike. This money is only part of the many legal but illegitimate perks that Nicaragua’s National Assembly representatives receive each year. Supposedly to pay for scholarships or other “good works,” it thus contributes to the expectation of handouts that riddles our political culture—if, of course, the money even gets handed out as opposed to going into the legislator’s own pocket.
Some FSLN representatives balked at Ortega’s initiative, but he silenced them. The PLC representatives did not second the initiative while the government applauded it without following suit. In the end, once the propaganda points had been tallied, the initiative met the same quiet death as Ortega’s announcement before last year’s municipal elections that all winning FSLN mayors would contribute half their salary to the social budget.
Political posts: Next Liberal and Sandinista parliamentarians dusted off the Salary Regulation for Public Administration and State Officials, drafted two years ago and brought out as an arm-twister during particularly heated moments. The bill proposes to cut the highest salaries by 20-30%, reduce the Presi-dent’s salary from $8,000 to $5,000 a month and establish that nobody else in a high state post can earn more than one salary or the equivalent of $3,500 a month.
The lottery jackpot
Nicaragua has the lowest national and per-capita gross domestic products in Central America but the highest government salaries. This unjust salary scale clearly demonstrates the continuing existence of the concept of state booty. Having a high state post is like winning the lottery jackpot. It means a huge salary, a luxury vehicle, free gas, travel, medical insurance, extra resources and subaltern jobs for friends, cronies and relatives. Above and beyond that financial appeal, it also means glitz: microphones and cameras, expense account meals and other irresistible and intoxicating effluvia derived from power and its attributes. These top posts from which the “rule of law” is supposedly administered are essential to the bipartite dictatorial system imposed by the PLC and FSLN.
The grass is always greenerIn the ensuing discussion about how much booty would go to the President, Vice President, legislators, magistrates, comptrollers, ministers, deputy ministers and general secretaries, we heard the same fallacious and unsustainable arguments as always. While everybody recognizes that the government salary scale is unjust, the recipients of such high salaries—legislators foremost—all focus only on the wad of bills in the next guy’s wallet without being willing to peel a few from their own.
in the other guy’s wallet
The ministers, convinced of their self-worth, threatened that if the remuneration for their public service were reduced, they would switch to the private sector, where they could earn more. They also warned that the salary reduction would trigger a “brain drain” to the United States. The legislators complained that they represent the people’s will but earn less than the ministers, who had not been elected. The ministers retorted that the legislators earn more and work less. The Supreme Court justices warned that with so many responsibilities a salary cut could tempt them to complement their earnings with corruption. Several of them griped that they are already earning much less than during the disordered and hyper-corrupt Alemán administration, inadvertently clouding the cause-and-effect link between salary and corruption. Bolaños government officials accused Sandinistas of populism, Liberals accused Sandinistas of demagogy and Sandinistas accused everybody else of forgetting the poor.
No economic criterion can explain the obscenely unjust salary structure prevailing in Nicaragua’s public sector. It can only be explained by the power structure, political convenience and the expectation of perks rooted in the system, in which a small group controls rings of complicities and mutual cover-ups. This grossly distorted scale, in which the bosses earn so much and those bossed, who bear the burden of the daily work, earn so little, also explains why the state functions so poorly.
The arguments offered up were entertaining, but they didn’t tip the scale in the population’s eyes because the inefficiency, insensitivity, arrogance, opportunism and corruption in top state posts have stripped them of any prestige. For several days, equity and justice were so freely touted that it actually seemed as if something might change, but since those who stood to lose with the change were the very ones who would have to make it, nothing went beyond the politicians’ empty rhetoric about “sacrifice for Nicaragua.”
The funds needed to increase teachers’ salaries by $40 and close the budget spending gap will not come from reducing the shamefully high salaries of top public officials, as some wanted us to believe during the showy debate. They will come only through the increased tax collection.
The triviality of being Bolaños After last November’s municipal elections and the new agreements hammered out between Ortega and Alemán, President Bolaños has been reduced to a small blip on the political screen. He cuts ribbons on public works, chairs conferences, presents himself in national speeches as an impotent “victim” of the dominating caudillos then travels abroad where he postures as the continent’s champion against corruption, claiming as he did again in France in early March that, thanks to him, “Nicaragua is better than ever today.”
Through their agreements and their dual objectives of sharing more power and releasing Alemán from prison, the PLC and FSLN have acquired jurisdiction over the naming of 40 top governmental posts over the remainder of Bolaños’ term in office. Once all those posts are assigned, their occupants will receive the same top-dollar salaries.
In February, Bolaños threatened to pull the plug on the tripartite dialogue that had put an end to January’s “crisis” if the FSLN-PLC did not consult him about the appointments, but, ignoring him utterly, the bipartite machinery went to work. Between them, the PLC and FSLN elected or reaffirmed five comptrollers, three alternate comptrollers and two Supreme Electoral Council magistrates, all of them soldiers loyal to either Ortega or Alemán. Bolaños, who would lose far more than he could gain by withdrawing from the dialogue, did what he always does when the FSLN-PLC duo makes end runs around him: he cried foul and played victim. Similar maneuvers can be expected with each new appointment.
Everything that has happened so far in the dialogue indicates the intolerable triviality of President Bolaños’ style of government. Yet he continues to enjoy the backing of the international community that is aiding Nicaragua. What must it think of his decision to use the poverty relief funds freed up by the HIPC initiative to prioritize the domestic debt over the urgent needs of health and education, as economist Adolfo Acevedo discusses in this issue of envío? This question is even more relevant in light of the British government’s proposal on third world debt cancellation, also published in this issue.
Will the FSLN-PLC consolidateThe Ortega-Alemán accords have irreversibly weakened the Bolaños administration, stripping it of all initiative while reaffirming the power their two majority parties will exercise over what remains of his term. The agreements were carefully designed to strengthen their closed bipartite model, starting now but kicking in even more strongly after the 2006 elections and the harvest both leaders expect to reap. The way the agreements work is that one of these two parties will win, but its candidates will not walk away with the whole pie; the other will still get a major slice. In this model, all branches and institutions of the state will not only provide very comfortable salaries for their top officials but will also be solidly loyal to the pro-Ortega group that controls the FSLN and the pro-Alemán group that controls the PLC.
their two-headed dictatorship?
The term that best describes this model is a two-headed dictatorship. And with Nicaragua’s society immobilized by impoverishment, fear and resignation, that dictatorship is heading toward consolidation.
But is such a future inevitable? An unanticipated political phenomenon, with hints of rebellion against Daniel Ortega’s iron grip of the FSLN, is raising questions and mobilizing expectations, albeit diffuse and imprecise ones.
“Something” is in the airLong-time FSLN militant Herty Lewites, who just concluded a highly successful term as mayor of Managua, made known as he was leaving office in January that he planned to enter the FSLN’s primary elections to head the presidential ticket in next year’s general elections. He was encouraged to do so the extremely high popularity ratings he has received in all polls over the past two years, including among non-Sandinistas. As such a potentially winning electoral card, he has earned the backing of various Sandinista circles of influence, from the business grouping represented by Daniel Ortega’s brother Humberto to sympathizers of Henry Ruiz, who is currently paying a high price for having denounced an egregious display of corruption in a party satellite organization. On top of this, the rank-and-file FSLN membership, especially in Managua, is increasingly convinced that Daniel Ortega cannot win and probably shouldn’t.
The authoritarian, poorly thought-out reaction of Daniel Ortega and his circle to Lewites’ challenge at the outset and Ortega’s more recent muscle flexing within the FSLN and all state institutions to smash Lewites and his supporters have boomeranged. While the brutish show of force did indeed intimidate or actually frighten some people into submission, it has also given wings to a pro-Herty “movement” both within and outside of the FSLN. The result has been the birth of something that cannot be explained by Lewites’ charisma and political and executive capacities alone, and even goes well beyond his own initial plans. Whatever that something is, it has transcended Lewites the man to be appropriated by thousands of Sandi-nistas in a matter of weeks.
The succession of events has had a snowballing effect. When Lewites first made his aspirations known, Daniel, his wife Rosario Murillo and FSLN founder Tomás Borge, to name only a few, insulted, disparaged and belittled him. When he withstood that, they found some pretext in the party statutes to “legally” inhibit him. When he kept on coming, they began to threaten him. When, undaunted, he still insisted, Sandinista groups actually threw stones at him and he was expelled from the FSLN. When not even that stopped him, Daniel Ortega used both his considerable influence in the Comptroller General’s Office to file what Lewites insists is a trumped-up penal charge and his equally considerable control in the electoral and judicial branches to prohibit Lewites from holding political rallies or using the Sandinista colors and symbols.
Parallel to that, Ortega quickly convoked an FSLN Congress, where he pushed through a resolution ratifying Lewites’ expulsion, another ratifying himself as the FSLN’s 2006 presidential candidate, preempting the party primary, and a third in which he was compared to FSLN founder Carlos Fonseca. William Grigsby’s article in this issue goes into all these events in more detail.
The response of a dictator,This spiraling and arbitrary exhibition of force has stunned much of the FSLN grass roots, which is finally beginning to reject his clinging to power, his arrogant attitude and the rather curious philosophy expressed by some of his followers that “it’s better to lose with Daniel than win with Herty.” Sandi-nistas and Nicaragua as a whole are waking up to the dictatorial political consequences of the pact in which Ortega and Alemán have yoked virtually all the main state institutions under their reins.
not a seasoned politician
One of the immediate consequences of the conflict within the FSLN has to do with the freeing of Arnoldo Alemán, anticipated for March according to the Ortega-Alemán pact. Some believe that if Ortega signals his loyal judicial branch officials to let Alemán walk, it will contribute to the momentum against the FSLN leader. This might not necessarily be the case, however, as a freed Alemán could pull Sandinista attention away from the conflict with Lewites and focus party unity. In any event, if Ortega doesn’t honor his word to free Alemán, it could encourage a rapprochement between the PLC and the Bolaños government, which would weaken the FSLN’s agreements with the PLC and complicate everything.
MRS distances itselfThe Sandinista Renovation Movement (MRS), which is an important part of the National Convergence grouping with which the FSLN is allied, issued a communiqué on March 8 distancing itself from the FSLN’s actions in the Lewites case and rejecting the “manifestly party-oriented and unprofessional actions of some state institutions.” The MRS believes that “the Supreme Electoral Council (CSE) resolution limiting citizens’ right to political mobilization to political parties violates the Constitution of the Republic, which establishes political pluralism rather than pluri-party politics as the essence of Nicaragua’s political system.” It insisted that the CSE rectify its position, which was aimed strictly at Herty Lewites’ attempts to hold support rallies.
The MRS also believes that “the Civil Bench of the Managua Court of Appeals exceeded its attributions and functions, seriously undermining freedom of mobilization and civic expression, by virtually suspending the faculty of the National Police to authorize any type of public activity in the country. The Court must rectify its decision.” With respect to the Comptroller General’s Office, the MRS statement argues that “it must be freed of party influences because its utilization by a political party to delegitimize political adversaries does not inspire confidence in this institution.”
The MRS further declared that it “does not share” the declaration endorsing Ortega’s candidacy read during the FSLN congress by Agustín Jarquín, who is one of the more distinguished figures in the Convergence and was Ortega’s running mate in 2001. Jarquín’s support for Ortega is not the only confusing signal to come from the Convergence. Banners can be seen around Managua stating, “FSLN and Convergence Women Support Daniel’s presidential candidacy.” Apart from MRS president Dora María Téllez, the only high-profile political women in the Convergence are from far-right parties that viscerally opposed the FSLN in the eighties.
A gambleThe Lewites case is far from over, as the FSLN inquisition determined. The results of the lessons from the former mayor’s odyssey so far—and more are surely to come—are still unpredictable, as are the longer-reaching effects of his project within the FSLN, the greater Sandinista family and even the nation as a whole. They will depend largely on those within the FSLN who have remained docile for so many years. The most vocal seem to have reached the end of their tether, but there is no way of knowing how many more are close to the same point or what those accustomed to routines generated by the fear of risk-taking might decide to do about it. Will they keep on hunkering down or might they join the surprising number who are already openly calling Ortega’s behavior dictatorial and suggesting that the time and opportunity have come to do something about it?
The situation is as worrying as it is interesting, given the personal power Daniel Ortega has monopolized and the influence the FSLN has acquired in the country’s institutions. “Sandinismo,” referring to the larger political and moral principles associated with the revolution, still has enormous symbolic and real weight in the country. Nicaragua needs a renovated and democratic FSLN with a national project of change rather than its now tired rhetoric and the double standard it has exhibited for some time. We can only hope that these lessons, which are being learned so quickly and painfully, will leave a mark this time.