Envío Digital
Central American University - UCA  
  Number 175 | Febrero 1996



The Features of Our Political Culture

By Paul Oquist and Rodolfo Delgado. An extract from their work "Nicaragua's Public Administration Reform: Requirements, Antecedents and Contents," for the Institute of Nicaraguan Studies (IEN).

Paul Oquist and Rodolfo Delgado

There is general consensus that nicaragua, like the majority of countries, requires significant social, economic and political reform. State reform represents only one of the many changes needed to consolidate Nicaragua's democratic governability and economic reactivation.

Almost a Whole Century Lost

Reforming public administration lies within this reform and within the structural transformations the country needs: a combination of changes that can reverse the critical vicious circles that are conspiring against the country's future. But public administration reform isolated from the other necessary reforms will not have successful results.

Nicaragua lost almost half of this century due to political and military struggles, the Somoza dictatorship and the opposition it provoked; the permanent instability limited development possibilities. Nicaragua lost the late 1970s to the insurrectionary war and the revolutionary rupture in the country's institutions. Then it lost the 1980s to another war, to errors committed in revolutionary transformations and to the counterrevolution, the trade embargo and the financial blockade imposed by the United States. We have now lost the first half of the 1990s to continued political instability, the government's lack of a social base, the postwar situation and the current economic policy's inability to stimulate productive reactivation.

The postwar situation has never been recognized as such in economic policy formulation. Rather, those policies have reflected a fictitious normality. The illusion of normality has only been possible due to the highest per?capita levels of foreign cooperation in the world, the funds of which have been used not for development processes but to maintain the illusion. Thus, Nicaragua, with its 2.9% population growth according to the 1995 census, has lost possible economic development for almost the entire 20th century.

While other countries are jockeying for positions in the systematized competitiveness demanded by the new globalized markets??which includes the competitive ability to attract investments??Nicaragua remains enmeshed in the same vicious circles that led to decades of national deterioration. The seriousness of the crisis extends to the future as well; the uncertainty surrounding the upcoming elections and the actions of the next government could bring more political instability and economic stagnation.

The basic vicious circle is the chronic political instability and insecurity that discourages both national and international investment, thus deteriorating the social and economic situation and creating greater political instability. Breaking this circle requires multiple simultaneous actions in both the economic and political spheres. In this context, public administration reform is only one piece in a series of changes that must be synergetically carried out in order to reach their objectives and have a real transforming impact on Nicaraguan society.

Reforming public administration in isolation not only would not produce the desired changes in all of society, but could mean the failure of the reform itself. The other variables??economic reactivation, private enterprise, civil society, political culture, legal framework??create conditions that are critical to the success of public administration reform. Or to say it another way: the situation in which we find all these variables today is part of the public administration issue. The variables also must be transformed to facilitate the success of public administration reform according to this logic: first establish what transformations society requires and then determine what kind of state is needed to lead and promote this process.

Four Historical Features

Four features of Nicaragua's concrete reality need to be taken into account, together with their historical background, in order to reform Nicaragua's public administration.

Nicaragua lacks a democratic political culture. Nicaragua's traditional political culture is hegemonic, excluding and conflictive. This political culture seriously conditions public administration and turns it into an instrument for the hegemonic and exclusionary projects of the group in power. This reduces public administration's legitimacy and credibility and automatically makes its relations with opposition political forces conflictive. To function well, modern public administration requires tolerance, inclusion and peaceful conflict resolution, all values of a democratic political culture.

It goes through changes of regime rather than of government. As a consequence of traditional political culture, the hegemonic and excluding dynamic converts each change of government into a change of regime, or system. This has high costs for the continuity of the work of skilled professionals and technicians, as well as for policy and even institutional continuity.

Nicaragua has only a small group of professionals with high qualifications in each sphere of government. Part of this sector works outside of Nicaragua or in the private sector, which reduces even more the personnel pool for the state. With each change of regime people are excluded because of political discrimination, although their knowledge is often later contracted through consultant work. Thus, public administration periodically loses the most qualified personnel, along with their knowledge and experience.

Treating changes in administration as changes in regime also means the almost total discontinuation of the previous government's policies, however successful they may have been, and their replacement with new policies, often only after long formulation periods. This produces periodic policy gaps, causing losses of the benefits that could be derived from consistent policies applied with perseverance over time periods that allow maturation.

Institutional systems are also discontinued. Two concrete and related examples suffice: First, when the FSLN took power, the Central Bank was the elite institution of national public administration, since Somoza had concentrated the bulk of the elements needed to run an economy there. The Sandinista government decided to create a Planning Ministry and transfer the Central Bank's Economic Studies Unit??the heart of economic policy?making??into it. This was a highly qualified elite unit, blessed with special benefits and full of people with doctorates and other degrees from the United States. The transfer led to a clash between different organizational cultures and within two years the Economic Studies Unit had been completely disarticulated. In the process, the Planning Ministry lost the capacity to do national accounting with a computerized data base, which it only regained at the end of the 1980s, with support from a United Nations project.

Second, with the change in 1990, the new government abolished the Planning Ministry, redistributing some of its functions among different ministries. It also abolished the planning divisions of other ministries. In the first years of the Chamorro administration, it was bad even to use the word "planning." As that official position became over?ideologized, the international financial institutions themselves urged the government to use a medium?term planning framework for the annual public investment plan and develop sectoral policies and plans to the same end, so that foreign cooperation and national efforts could be adjusted to these frameworks.

Thus, because of highly ideologized mentalities, both the Sandinista and Chamorro governments committed the same error in the same country in a period of ten years. In both cases they lost several years of ability to formulate and implement national economic policies.

Institutional feudalism is still a reality. The Somocista regime was characterized by virtually autonomous ministries that decided their own policies and managed their own systems. The only exception was any issue that directly affected Somoza family interests, which were all centralized in the Presidency.

One of the Sandinistas' most critical administrative problems was "institutional feudalism." Ministries and other institutions were grouped under different FSLN leaders, who managed them very independently and in some cases actively sought absolute sovereignty for their operations. Daily functioning was dominated by this institutional feudalism, which was only overcome during the revolution's extraordinary mobilizations.

Violeta Chamorro's government is criticized for the dispersion and lack of discipline of its ministries and other official entities, incoherence in policy formulation and implementation and policy gaps that no institution concerns itself with.

Given the existence of the same phenomenon in three governments with such different characteristics, it can be hypothesized that we are in the presence of another characteristic of traditional political culture. Its base is caudillismo and the difficulty of having more than one leader in the same institution, which even leads to creating new institutions just to accommodate the caudillos.

Too Much Ideology, Not Enough Management. Somocismo had no articulated ideology, but it did have dynastic political loyalties. These values formed the back bone of government and were more powerful than institutions themselves. This explains why both the government and the National Guard virtually fell apart with Anastasio Somoza Debayle's departure from the country in 1979. Without Somoza at the head, the power apparatus could not function.

One of the Sandinista government's main cohering forces was precisely its ideology, which encompassed the government, armed forces, official party and Sandinista?controlled mass organizations. This ideology was what allowed the unification of diverse Sandinista groups for the huge mobilizations of the 1980s. It was not public , which was weak and relatively disarticulated, just like today, but rather the combination of diverse forces and the synergy among them that permitted Sandinismo to achieve its great objectives: the literacy crusade, health campaigns, voluntary work, crop harvesting and above all, the multiple collective efforts associated with the war. That tremendous mobilizing ability was based on unconventional resources: social organization, local participation, leadership, fraternity, solidarity and a high priority for the common good.

The Chamorro government appears not to have an ideological base and, prior to the formation of the National Project Party, not even a political base. The basis of the current government's policies, however, has been neoliberal ideology??in the extreme form of the so?called Washington Consensus. The "change of regime" in 1990 thus did not lead to a change in planning style but to an attempt to abolish planning as a scientific?administrative function.

Hence, ideologization is another feature of traditional Nicaraguan political culture. It has robbed the country of the benefit of a highly pragmatic, goal?oriented public management style, geared to take advantage of opportunities and resolve problems. The efficacy of Nicaraguan public has suffered greatly from the substitution of ideological orientations for modern management approaches. The indicators are still too insufficient to tell whether these current and historical realities are in decline. In fact, there are dangers of their reproduction with the political polarization accompanying the 1996 elections, which reflects another characteristic of traditional political culture: the propensity to political violence.

This analysis of the historical baggage that burdens Nicaraguan public brings us to two conclusions:

1) These four adverse features must be transformed if public reform is to succeed. Even if only one of these features is left unchanged, it would be enough to destroy the reform as a whole.

2) Public reform must specifically take these features into account and try to incorporate concrete measures to deal with them in the short, medium and long term.

Limits on the Reform Project

With the support of some international organizations, the Chamorro government has drafted a public reform proposal in its final months that takes into account the universal processes that are defining the characteristics of the state in the 21st century.

The proposal is not for implementation during this government, but rather later. Just formulating it is a real step forward, but the proposal has major limitations, some of which are:

It is partial and isolated, limited to public , rather than a program integrated with the series of other necessary reforms.

It does not incorporate the elements of the current situation or the historical antecedents of national public that affect the possible success of reform in Nicaragua. It is presented as a proposal of the Chamorro government and not as one with broad consensus among the different political forces, civil society and private enterprise as "partners in state modernization" and promoters of a reform that would introduce public management concepts. Perhaps the greatest limitation of this administrative reform proposal is that up to now the government's own management practices and resulting tendencies contradict the contents of its proposal.

Just one example. The Chamorro government has implemented power centralization rather than decentralization. The Sandinista government had created a system of regional governments and turned some functions over to the regional authorities. Nonetheless, the mechanism remained vertical and its managerial practice incipient. Furthermore, the "regions"??which generally joined two or more departments together??were unpopular since people identify with their traditional department.

The new government thus abolished the regional governments in 1990, but did not switch back to departmentalization or any other decentralized scheme. There is now a national government on one side and municipalities with limited functions on the other. Even national ministries use a confusing variety of administrative demarcations. Instead of correcting the limitations of the previous decentralization scheme, the current government's practices have taken a major step backward in this area. Although its administrative reform proposal speaks of decentralization, the trend is headed in the other direction, and with negative results.

The Challenge: A National Agenda

The political perspectives for 1996 indicate that it will be very hard to push forward the reform agenda Nicaragua requires, including public reform. Government and party elites have another agenda. At the same time, civil society is in an extremely weak position to articulate clear demands and integrated proposals. This limits the possibilities for establishing an alternative national agenda that, even lacking much elite interest, could have its own force.

Transforming the current reality is absolutely key for a country that has already lost almost a century of development possibilities and now faces the danger of losing the whole of the 90s. Nicaragua's perspectives for the 21st century must not be obscured; in a world where regions and even continents are ever more integrated, this would affect not only Nicaragua but other Central American countries as well. Joining forces to attain national consensus to get the country out of its integral crisis is essential. That is our historic challenge.

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