Envío Digital
Central American University - UCA  
  Number 119 | Junio 1991




Envío team

Just after midnight on Saturday April 27, a gunman hidden in a moving Toyota Land Cruiser set off a round of automatic-rifle fire at the Intercontinental Hotel's Las Cabanas bar while President Violeta Chamorro was inside. At least one person was injured. The incident, considered an "assault against the country's stability" by all and an "assault on Violeta" by some, fueled the flames of an already tense political moment. The previous afternoon, Daniel Ortega had harshly criticized the government for its attempts both to remove René Vivas as the head of the police force and overturn the decrees passed by the Sandinista-controlled National Assembly guaranteeing property rights to all those who had received land or houses under the revolutionary government.

Ortega specifically attacked Chamorro for her statement published a day earlier in the weekly El Semanario that he should return the house he inhabits to its "rightful" former owner, Somocista Jaime Morales, calling her attitude "vengeful." He said, "I'm not from a rich family like Mrs. Chamorro. Her money didn't cost her anything. She got wealthy from other peoples' sweat." He pointed out that, if he were even to consider moving, the message this would send to the thousands of poor families who received property under the decrees would be devastating.

After the shooting, La Prensa jumped to accuse the FSLN and even Ortega himself, saying, "You [Daniel Ortega] threaten doña Violeta with subversion if she doesn't give in to your will and prevent the repeal of decrees 85 and 86. For greater Somocista flavor, those cunning elements that kill and attack... add machine-gun fire and other criminal actions to this dictatorial attitude from below." Even when ample evidence showed the guilty party to be a former contra, La Prensa accused the Sandinista press of "trying to confuse things," implied that the FSLN had "carefully prepared" a cover-up, and related the case to the still-unsolved assassinations of Enrique Bermúdez and Jean Paul Genie.

Three days after the incident at Las Cabanas, the police found the truck and AK-47 rifle used in the attack. The owner of the truck, Maximino Rodríguez, a leader of the Civic Association of the Nicaraguan Resistance, stated that two other former contras—one of whom owns the rifle—had taken his truck while drunk. He emphasized that the attack had nothing to do with the Association, which, he said, has very good relations with the President. He criticized the press for calling the action an "attempt on Violeta" instead of recognizing it as just "a question of drunkenness."

A Barricada editorial compared the attitude of La Prensa and the former contras, saying, "The leaders of the Resistance themselves have acted with much greater responsibility," and questioned why La Prensa was trying to protect the guilty party. "It seems that, blinded by irrational hate, they don't realize the mud they're slinging against Sandinismo is landing on their own front porch."

While the Sandinista National Workers' Front (FNT) officially opposes the occupational conversion program, so far almost 3,000 state workers have decided to accept the plan. The program, financed by AID, began on March 15. In its first phase, workers could sign up until April 30; currently in its second phase, workers must sign up before May 11. Those who participate in the program agree to quit their jobs—and not accept another state job for four years—in return for one of four economic options, which involve different combinations of cash payments, loans and/or jobs in the private sector. The most popular option is a one-time cash payment of 20 months' worth of salary in córdobas, with a ceiling of $2,000.

The plan's explicit goal is to cut the state sector by 8,000 workers; its implicit goal is to undermine state-sector Sandinista unions. AID claims to be monitoring the program closely to assure that no new workers are hired to replace those who leave. The Finance Ministry (MIFIN) reports that 2,700 people signed up in the first phase, 200 more than projected. MIFIN expects even more in the second phase, especially from the health and education sectors, where strikes and salary negotiations were underway during the first phase.

While the plan is supposed to be voluntary, many Sandinista workers have simply given in to the pressure to leave, often with the threat that they will be fired later—with no benefits—if they stay. And though "occupational conversion" is promoted as an opportunity to set up a small business, few have any illusions that a successful business can be established with the small sum of money they are being given and the intense competition in the informal sector due to the current economic crisis.

In what appears to be essentially a political maneuver, Danilo Lacayo, information and press minister, removed Carlos Briceño from his post as director of the state television station. Briceño returned to Nicaragua from Miami during the election campaign to direct UNO's television news spots and assumed the directorship of Channel 6 after the elections. While Lacayo claims "it’s nothing more than the routine replacement of an administrator based on an evaluation to improve state television," the evidence supports Briceño's claims that Nicaragua's Channel 6 "is the only government station in Latin America that occupies first place, is not subsidized and brings in considerable income to the State." Briceño says that his mistake was believing that doing a good job, instead of politicking, was enough to get recognition.

Lacayo is accused of conflict of interest since he chairs the board of Nicaragua's only two television channels. Earlier this year, he tried to transfer an important contract for the 7 pm viewing hour from Channel 6 to Channel 2, which Briceño says Lacayo favors. That time slot brings in 30% of the state channel's income. Briceño claimed that Lacayo was trying to undermine him and aid Channel 2's director, Octavio Sacasa. Briceño told Barricada that his removal is Lacayo's revenge for his having prevented the contract from being transferred to Sacasa's station.

Channel 6 workers report that Lacayo's frustration that Briceño refuses to take a stronger political line in favor of the government is at the bottom of the conflict. He was committed, one worker said, "to the Miami conception of more politically balanced programming." Briceño predicted "radical changes in programming" with his removal and said that "the news will take a more official line." Lacayo even admitted as much to Barricada, contradicting the government's political discourse about "non-partisan" freedom of expression. "Briceño's problem,” he said, “is that he wanted to be an independent journalist. Any director in this position will have to follow the government's official line."

President Chamorro vetoed the Foreign Investment Law passed by the National Assembly due to two key elements added during the legislative debates. The original proposal included a five-member Investment Committee made up of the ministers of finance, economy and foreign cooperation, the Central Bank president and a representative of the parliamentary minority, in this case the FSLN. In the Assembly debates, four additional members were added: the ministers of labor and natural resources, an industry delegate and the mayor of the municipality in which the potential investment would take place. The committee would also include two observers—one representing business and one representing the unions—from the branch of the economy in which the investment would be made. While such a committee is pluralistic and recognizes broad interests in foreign investment, the Presidency fears that its size will scare away investors, when the goal is to attract them. Presidential legal advisor Tomás Delaney told La Prensa, "We need something fast, technical and attractive," not bureaucratic.

The other article in question prohibits Nicaragua's foreign debt from being "swapped" for foreign investment. In other words, it would prevent the government from paying off creditors, for example, with shares in what are currently state enterprises. This prohibition was added to the President's original proposal based on arguments in defense of national sovereignty, but the Presidency believes such swaps may be necessary to reduce the country's foreign debt and has already begun discussions with several creditor nations. The Assembly will now debate these two articles again.

The law to establish a legal minimum wage is currently being debated in the National Assembly. According to Barricada, almost all the major unions agree that the minimum wage should be based on the cost of the basic market basket of 53 products. The Sandinista union umbrella National Workers' Front (FNT) has proposed a law to this effect, as have the pro-government Permanent Workers' Congress (CPT) and Autonomous Nicaraguan Workers' Confederation (CTNa). By the FNT's calculations, these 53 products—which include basic foods, clothing and household items—cost a total of 795 córdobas ($159) at the end of April. The FNT's proposal includes automatic adjustments in the minimum wage pegged to cost-of-living increases, as monitored by the National Standard of Living Commission.

The CPT's proposal is similar to the FNT's but calculates a total amounting to $140. The CTNa proposes that the minimum wage be differentiated based on the cost of the 53-product market basket in the different regions of the country. The Workers' Front contemplates a basket of 29 products but with greater quantities, such that it is currently worth $160. Currently, many workers still make less than $50 a month.

The proposal submitted by the presidency suggests neither the amount of the minimum wage nor the basis upon which it should be calculated, but would fix the sum for a minimum of one year, responding, according to La Prensa, "to the characteristics of each job, the particular conditions of each region and economic zone, and employers' possibilities." At least some UNO delegates argue that the minimum wage should be adjusted every three months, with input from the state, workers and employers.

Nicaraguan health authorities agree that the standard of living of the country's majority spells disaster in the event of a cholera epidemic. The Ministry of Health (MINSA) reports that only 40% of Managua's one million inhabitants has access to toilets, and only half of the rest has access to latrines; only 16% of the rural population has access even to latrines. Of the urban population, 22% does not have access to potable water; in rural areas, the figure is 47%. And only 59% of the available potable water is treated. Of the nation's 20 sewage systems, only 8 include sewage treatment; Managua's sewage is dumped untreated into Lake Managua. Garbage collection services are available to only 55% of the population, and of existing dumps, 93% are open air—perfect reservoirs for the propagation of the cholera bacterium.

MINSA also reports that 70% of the Nicaraguan population does not have its basic needs met, including 23% who live in extreme poverty, and 16% in misery. Unemployment and underemployment is estimated at almost 50%, and 19% of the country's inhabitants live in overcrowded conditions. These statistics imply a malnourished population living in conditions very favorable to the transmission of cholera.

Pan American Health Organization epidemiologist Dr. Jorge Arróstegui points out that the cholera bacteria survive in and contaminate both fresh and salt water. Cholera has been virtually eradicated only in countries with complete sewage treatment systems. In the Central American region, he says, cholera will most likely break out in an epidemic, then settle into an endemic presence, establishing a pattern of occasional epidemics.

According to MINSA's National Plan for the Prevention and Control of Cholera, Nicaragua's greatest asset in its fight against the disease is "the Nicaraguan people’s high level of organization and social participation." Community education on health and hygiene, says Arróstegui, is vital in combating cholera's spread. Unfortunately, political tensions and conflicts have impeded a massive, national clean-up campaign.

A representative of the Sandinista-based Community Movement was prevented from attending a government-sponsored meeting to discuss plans for an anti-cholera campaign in Managua. When he arrived at the meeting, he was met at the door by an UNO Municipal Council member who said, "We don't want anything to do with you." The Community Movement has trained over 500 community leaders to carry out preventive health education and is currently focusing its efforts on the particularly vulnerable neighborhoods bordering Lake Managua. It has also trained health brigade workers in the markets and was promoting a two-day national clean-up program being discussed at the meeting.

Nonetheless, the Movement organized some 3,000 volunteers to participate in the clean-up, scheduled for the last weekend of April. The afternoon before it was to begin, the Managua mayor's office sent a message to the Departmental Committee for the Fight against Cholera saying it would not be able to provide trucks or any other vehicles to transport the garbage to be collected. A Movement representative told Barricada, "We interpret this as an obvious show of irresponsible political revenge." Not easily defeated, however, the Community Movement reports that its volunteers are preparing local emergency plans for garbage burial and burning.

In the midst of a round of negotiations between the Salvadoran government and the FMLN in Mexico that lasted almost the whole month of April, Antonio Cardenal (Comandante Jesús "Chus" Rojas), a member of the FMLN Political-Diplomatic Commission, was murdered after being captured in an ambush in Chalatenango, El Salvador. A Nicaraguan-Salvadoran, Cardenal was the nephew of Pedro Joaquín Chamorro, the President's martyred husband. His body was returned to Nicaragua for burial, following a mass at Managua's Central American University where Cardenal had been a brilliant student. He was also a Jesuit for 10 years until, before being ordained, he decided to join the Salvadoran guerrilla movement. An important interview by Comandante "Chus," whom we knew for years and valued highly, was published in envío in February 1990.

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