Envío Digital
Central American University - UCA  
  Number 118 | Mayo 1991




Envío team

Forest fires raging through Nicaragua's northern Atlantic Coast region have consumed more than 123,000 acres of pine forest and another 370,000 acres are affected, according to Dr. Jaime Incer, head of Nicaragua's Natural Resources Institute (IRENA). The forests have been burning since early January, when small fires started by peasants clearing lands spread out of control. In addition to the incalculable ecological damages, the economic loss to the lumber industry is estimated at some $80 million.

Incer says the country's forest fire prevention program does not receive enough financing and points out that a staff of only 30 people is in charge of controlling and containing fires. IRENA's cut of the national budget is only 0.6%. A member of the fire prevention team said, "We're working on a shoestring, we don't have the resources—there's simply not much we can do."

Environmental education is sorely needed, Incer says, declaring that people burn off large areas of land with little thought to the environmental or economic consequences. He said that Swedish and US organizations have made a commitment to financing an environmental education program. He also called for legislation that would assist IRENA in its efforts to control forest fires.

IRENA officials complained that the Emergency Social Investment Fund (FISE), a US-funded jobs program, rejected their request for assistance to create jobs in the area of environmental protection in the Atlantic region.

Thanks to the economic measures declared on March 3, Nicaragua's university system suffered a massive budget cut, receiving a 160% "increase" over its original córdoba oro budget, which had just been devalued by 400%—in other words, a real reduction of over 40%. The universities first demanded a 310% increase, with Dr. Alejandro Serrano, dean of the National Autonomous University and head of the National Council of Universities, arguing that the new budget would destabilize higher education in Nicaragua.

In talks with National Council of Universities directors, the government took a surprisingly hard line. It also devoted hours of television and radio time to attacking the universities and calling into question the honesty and integrity of the university authorities. Two points of contention were the amount of money budgeted for salaries—70%, which the government called "immoral," although former Minister of Education Carlos Tünnerman said that it’s lower than in most Latin American countries—and what the government alleged were attempts by the council to slash the budget for scholarship students. Presidential Minister Antonio Lacayo accused Serrano of being manipulative and of "hiding the reality" of the budget.

Serrano in turn demanded respect for both himself and the university community, while UCA head César Jérez accused the government of trying to turn the students against the council. He also said that without a budget increase, charging tuition might be the only way out of the crisis, but emphasized that "we don’t want to charge tuition. We don’t want to become an elite university. Education should not be the right only of the rich; we’re interested in educating the poor."

The student association, UNEN, took to the streets several times along with professors and university workers, and some students spent all of Holy Week (when Nicaragua traditionally shuts down and anyone who has the wherewithal heads to the beach) camped out near the presidential office buildings in protest. In early April, the universities and government agreed to a 225% increase, this time in "a spirit of understanding and cordiality." Each university in the system will negotiate salary and other budget increases internally based on this figure, preserving the universities' autonomy from government interference.

Some political analysts in Managua charge that underlying the campaign against the council is an attempt to divide the university community and pave the way towards privatized higher education in Nicaragua. Analyst Roberto Cajina wrote in Barricada in early April that it’s an "open secret" that the Catholic Church’s charismatic City of God sect (see envío no. 108, July 1990) has two educational projects in the works. One is a "new" Catholic university—presumably aimed at eclipsing the UCA—that Cajina says will be funded by the Vatican. The other is a technological institute closely linked to the country's most reactionary economic sectors, the business executives of COSEP. Cajina says that the government is attempting to "strangle" the existing higher education institutions to strengthen these new initiatives, which are more to their ideological liking.

Nicaragua’s Health Ministry (MINSA) says that an outbreak of cholera in the country is nearly inevitable. Peru is the first country to be seriously affected (over 900 deaths reported as of mid-April, with close to 50,000 people hospitalized), and the disease is slowly spreading to other countries.

Dr. Larry Balladares, head of epidemiology for MINSA, says that a potential cholera epidemic would have its most devastating impact on the country's poorest sectors, where basic hygiene and sanitation levels are dangerously low. In the many shantytowns that have sprung up in Managua and other cities in the last several years, little safe drinking water is available and generally no sewage or sanitary facilities. The poverty level means that many children are already seriously malnourished and are thus particularly vulnerable to diseases like cholera.

MINSA officials say they fear that an epidemic would bring 5,000 cases in the first week, with hundreds of potential deaths as the disease runs it course. They called for a national clean-up campaign to eliminate illegal garbage dumps and urged people to be particularly careful about food preparation and storage. Dr. Balladares said MINSA would be inspecting food vendors to ensure that they meet basic hygienic standards.

Enrique Picado of Nicaragua's Community Movement says 12,000 activists are ready to participate in clean-up efforts. He accused the Managua mayor's office of blocking the participation of some community leaders for purely political reasons and said the number one priority should be preventing what could be a potentially disastrous epidemic.

Just before adjourning for the Holy Week recess, the National Assembly passed legislation approving the formation of private banks in Nicaragua. A Bank Superintendent’s Office was created to oversee the new banks and will include the country's key financial ministers, as well as opposition political forces, including the FSLN. Most of the Sandinista representatives approved the bill.

During the debates, the FSLN expressed concern about a return to the Somoza-style banking system, a concern fueled by the appearance during the debates of Eduardo Montealegre, son of the former head of the BANIC banking group. Some Sandinistas accused him of inappropriately lobbying the UNO bloc of representatives.

Though some UNO representatives were dead set against cooperative banks, they will be allowed under the new regulations. The Nicaraguan Association of Farmers and Ranchers (UNAG) has expressed interest in setting up a bank to assist its members. Private banks must have a minimum capital of 10 million córdobas ($2 million) in order to operate. The government has already received 18 requests to open private banks.

In another hotly debated point, the legislation obliges the government to draw up and implement a program to capitalize and strengthen state banks so they can compete with private banks (this must be implemented no later than 90 days after the law takes effect). With an ongoing strike in the national banking sector, many workers had expressed concern that the government was out to bankrupt the national banks in order to allow private banks to take over the entire financial industry.

In early April, President Violeta Chamorro sent a draft law to the National Assembly to overturn legislation passed by the outgoing Sandinista government in April 1990 that says Nicaragua's case against the US in the World Court must stand until the US compensates Nicaragua for damages. The Nicaraguan government's presentation to the World Court decision assessed total US damages to Nicaragua at some $17 billion.

Barricada reported that the move was due to pressure from the US State Department, which has made withdrawal of the case an "indispensable condition" for further economic assistance. Presidential Minister Antonio Lacayo denies that Nicaragua was pressured to drop the case, but other government officials who accompanied him on his recent trip to Washington say that the US did make that demand.

The draft law has still not come up for discussion in the National Assembly, reportedly due to a lack of consensus among UNO representatives. National Assembly President Alfredo César said it was not an urgent matter. The FSLN is vigorously opposed to the legislation. Former president Daniel Ortega demanded that the US "stop its blackmail" of Nicaragua and said that the FSLN and its National Assembly representatives will defend "national sovereignty and international law."

On April 3, La Prensa published a letter on its front page signed by Lilliam S. de Sevilla (the "S" is for Somoza—she is the sister of former dictator Anastasio Somoza Debayle). She wrote, "The aim of this letter is to make it known to the citizenry and foreign investors that I am claiming my property and goods acquired with my personal funds, and 50% of those belonging to General Somoza García" (her father, the first dictator, who ruled Nicaragua until he was assassinated in 1956).

She has filed a claim with the Attorney General's office, which is overseeing the giveback of confiscated properties and lands, and is also claiming rights under President Chamorro's amnesty decree and the International Human Rights Convention. The letter reads, "I consider your government legally responsible for the sale of any of my properties and warn possible buyers that they would be swindled if they acquire them; and that I reserve the right to make a demand to national or international courts against the government or illegal buyers in Nicaragua or abroad of my legitimate properties."

The President's office responded with a letter to La Prensa the following day, claiming they were "surprised" by Sevilla's claim. But Barricada questioned that, criticizing the government for keeping silent about the fact that her claim has no legal basis. "Is it," asked Barricada, "that the government is planning to return confiscated properties to the Somoza family?"

A 32-page document is circulating among Sandinista party members as one of three working papers for debate before the upcoming party Congress in July. The document covers general goals and principles and in eight sections discusses the following issues in some detail: democracy, economics, the armed forces, international relations, society, Atlantic Coast autonomy, natural resources and politics.

A second working paper on bylaws proposes a party congress every three years, to be attended by a maximum of 600 delegates along with an elected party assembly (the current Sandinista Assembly is appointed) and an elected National Directorate of up to 11 members. The current directorate has 7 members; of the original 9, Carlos Núñez died, and, as head of the army, Humberto Ortega is proscribed from serving in party leadership positions. New blood is thus virtually assured in the Directorate, even if the current members are reelected, as most people think they will be.

Base-level discussions of the papers have begun to take place, and promise to be heated around the many issues—both programmatic and theoretical—of where the party is going and how to get there. While the aim is to approach consensus at the base level even before the Congress, care is being taken that this not occur by railroading participants during the local discussions.

One way this was assured was by training 150 monitors, who will then train others, snowball fashion, as was done during the 1980 Literacy Crusade. Simulated debates were held in the training sessions to teach the monitors how to chair debates and how to take notes on every view expressed. The documents are being delivered to party members and sympathizers to read before the discussion sessions, and those who can are being encouraged to write up their positions ahead of time to be doubly sure they are included.

After nearly two months of close-mouthed investigation into the assassination of Enrique Bermúdez, Vice Minister of Government José Pallais announced on April 11 that his ministry is following up on two suspects, both foreigners who left the country for the United States the day after the assassination.

In Nicaragua's first major political assassination in over a decade, former National Guard colonel Bermúdez, the contras' main military chief until March 1988, was killed the night of Saturday, February 16, in the Intercontinental Hotel parking lot. His murder was professionally designed and expertly executed. He was shot in the head with a single bullet as he returned to his car, apparently alone. He had been drawn to the area by a phone call citing him to what turned out to be a fictitious meeting with US Ambassador Harry Shlaudemann.

There is reportedly one indirect witness, about whom no information has been released. Pallais said his ministry would ask the FBI to help in the investigation and would request the extradition of the two suspects. Venezuela is already providing security investigators to review evidence, and President Chamorro named a special civilian commission to contribute to the investigations, adding that "it must try not to hinder the activities of the National Police."

The Washington Times caused a brief flurry in both the United States and Nicaragua when it published an unsubstantiated article in mid-March accusing army head General Humberto Ortega of requisitioning an AK-47 rifle with a silencer the night before the murder. The article also said that both Vice President Virgilio Godoy and Minister of the Presidency Antonio Lacayo had voiced suspicion of Gen. Ortega. In an icy open letter to La Prensa, which carried the story, Lacayo denied having voiced any such thing.

Bermúdez's widow buried her husband's remains in the United States, opposing those who wanted him buried in Nicaragua by arguing that his grave would not be safe. Before his body was returned to Miami, Cardinal Obando y Bravo and two auxiliary bishops from Managua celebrated a final Mass for him. The service was attended by hundreds of demobilized contras, Antonio Lacayo and other Cabinet members (President Chamorro was out of the country at the time).

In his homily, Cardinal Obando read a letter Bermúdez had sent him last November 12, fingering "all individuals who, in collusion with the Sandinistas, are lending themselves to this abuse" as responsible for anything that might happen to him. The abuse he referred to was the government's non-compliance with its promises to the former contras. In the months before his death, Bermúdez was working intensely to unify thousands of demobilized contras under his political leadership. Cardinal Obando compared Bermúdez's assassination with that of La Prensa editor Pedro Joaquín Chamorro in 1978, and expressed his desire that the colonel continue watching over his family and his homeland "from God's bosom."

Foreign ministers and support staff from all the Central American countries, the European Community and Colombia, Mexico and Venezuela met in Managua on March 13-19. It was the seventh round of joint Europe-Central America meetings identified by the name of the Costa Rican capital where the first was held. In "San José VII," Central America's main request was preferential treatment for its export products, similar to that received by the Andean countries. If granted, it would reduce the tariffs Central America must pay to introduce its products into Europe by $200 million. Some 25% of Central America's exports go to Europe, but account for barely 11% of Europe's overall imports. No decision was made on the request during the meeting.

El Salvador's FMLN took advantage of the conference to present a proposal it hoped would accelerate its negotiations with the Salvadoran government. First presented to the Nicaraguan government and immediately afterward to the foreign ministers present in Managua, the FMLN's proposal would focus negotiations, in simultaneous commissions, on three of the agenda points agreed to last year in Caracas: restructuring the armed forces, reforming the Constitution, and a cease-fire, the latter barely touched on to date in the talks. The two FMLN representatives, Comandantes Shafik Handal and Joaquín Villalobos, proposed special characteristics for the cease-fire, including delimiting areas of Salvadoran territory in which the two forces in conflict would remained armed but not in combat, under international supervision. President Chamorro was very receptive to the proposal, and publicly committed her government to make efforts to help bring about an end to the war in El Salvador.

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