More of the Same? Or Have We Touched Bottom?
The PLC-FSLN pact keeps getting stronger. Between the government’s political decisions and the opposition pact’s institutional design, Nicaragua’s future seems already written.
With electoral change still far off, the system has collapsed.
The institutional war that has put President Bolaños between the rock of the bipartite pact and the legal hard place that the PLC-FSLN constructed piece by piece from the legislative and judicial branches since the start of the year keeps getting worse. The gulf between what is legal and what is legitimate has reached unsustainable dimensions. Can Nicaragua keep teetering at the edge of this abyss until the elections in November 2006 define some new players in this terrible game?
With only a paper shieldEver since the constitutional reforms were approved in January, transferring important quotas of power from the executive to the legislative branch, the President has been trying to defend himself from them politically and legally. In search of some kind of backing, he turned to the international community, whose help nonetheless failed to change the course of the crisis. For example, the Central American Court of Justice handed down a decision declaring the reforms “inapplicable,” but within hours it was rejected by Nicara-gua’s Supreme Court bench, where Bolaños has no friends at all.
Unwilling to comply with the constitutional reforms, President Bolaños continued to shield himself with the Central American court’s ruling after the Nicaraguan court disallowed it. Even on its own merit, that document is fragile armor since the Central American Court of Justice is a questionably legitimate entity that operates with a logic removed from the legal principles it used in its controversial sentence. Bolaños also called on his cronies and government officials to file dozens of suits against the reforms with the Nicaraguan Supreme Court. As Bolaños waited on the court’s rulings, the country went right on functioning, seemingly with two Constitutions, although with obvious contradictions between the old public service institutions and the new ones created by the reforms. As the days ticked on, conjecture ebbed and flowed about what the court would decide, with many betting on a compromise sentence that would help break the impasse between the President and the PLC-FSLN and hopefully relieve some of the tension.
That hope was abetted by crisis mediators from the Organization of American States—first Secretary General José Miguel Insulza himself, then former Argentine foreign minister Dante Caputo, appointed as the “bridge” to Insulza—who came to the country at Bolaños’ invitation and recommended just such a compromise resolution to the court. The justices, known to hand down sentences overnight if it suits their “owners’” purposes, took weeks to decide, all of which suggested that the decision involved very complex political horse trading.
Not even Garza could While expectations about the court’s decision dragged on, Insulza’s highly publicized initiative ended in failure, and Caputo’s much more discreet efforts bogged down as both the PLC-FSLN and Bolaños refused to budge from their positions. Overlapping the OAS presence, the Bush government also sent former US ambassador to Nicaragua Oliver Garza at Bolaños’ request. Garza trusted that the friendship forged during his ambassadorial stint while Alemán was President would help undo the pact’s knot, allowing the formation of an anti-Sandinista electoral bloc that could beat Ortega in next year’s presidential elections.
undo the Gordian knot
It still isn’t clear what he offered in exchange for getting Alemán to withdraw from the political stage and loosen his grip on the PLC. Was it an amnesty? A pardon? Exoneration from the trials pending in both the United States and Panama on money-laundering charges? It must have been something pretty big even to tempt Alemán. Garza moved stealthily, avoiding publicity, but the little that filtered through the wall of silence indicated very strong tensions with Alemán, his family, the PLC leadership and its legislative bench.
In the end, Garza failed as well; in fact he only made the knot tighter. Alemán conceded nothing. After more than a month of meeting, meddling and pressuring, Garza left Nicaragua on September 2 accepting, in a written statement, that the PLC’s “only loyalty” is “toward strengthening and entrenching itself with the upper echelons of the FSLN.”
By hook... or by forceRight before Garza’s departure, the Supreme Court finally issued its ruling. It was no coincidence. With Alemán sticking firmly to his pact with Ortega, the court could endorse the legal core of their pact: the constitutional reforms. On August 30, it resolved that the reforms were made legally, are in effect and should be respected by everyone in the country.
This ruling, which puts the seal on the pact, expresses the solidity of the agreements between Ortega and Alemán, which no national, US or other international pressure has yet been able to undermine. The constitutional reforms express the pact’s future plan: that the two major parties—the PLC and the FSLN—will be able to govern from the National Assembly no matter who occupies the presidential office. President Bolaños upped the ante yet again by also refusing to respect this Supreme Court decision. On September 2, at the annual Army Day celebration, he defiantly announced in a very aggressive speech, in which he accused the judicial branch of corruption, that he would continue fighting the “dictatorship” and called on the army to accompany him in this struggle to avoid “bloodshed.”
The army has been walking a very prudent line for months. Army chief Omar Halleslevens has let the population know in various ways that “it should feel secure because it has a professional, non-partisan, apolitical, obedient and non-deliberative army.”
The Supreme Court ruling gave the PLC-FSLN its most significant legal victory in the institutional war. Hours after Bolaños’ provocative speech, the Supreme Court justices warned that he would have to bow to the reforms “by hook… or by force.”
Alemán briefly paroled Also on August 30, in addition to validating the constitutional reforms, the Supreme Court resolved to return Alemán to the “family coexistence” status a judge had granted him at the end of July based on a list of 11 chronic ailments he suffers. Not unlike parole, family coexistence is a conditional liberty prior to full release with freedom of movement.
Judge Roxana Zapata’s controversial administrative resolution granting Alemán that privilege had perplexed Ortega, who has held the key to Alemán’s fate ever since his indictment in December 2002 in a court under Ortega’s influence. To reassert his control, Ortega promptly ordered the Supreme Court to rescind Zapata’s ruling, and within 48 hours Alemán was back under house arrest on El Chile, his luxurious hacienda.
Alemán even more cagedOn August 9, shortly after Ortega had curtailed Alemán’s first taste of conditional liberty, Bolaños ordered strict security measures in El Chile, with restrictions that Alemán had never previously suffered. He was confined to his room, with only one hour daily to get some sun.
Perhaps to facilitate Garza’s work of trying to get Alemán to give in via the “caged lion syndrome,” the number of Penitentiary System guards controlling the hacienda’s entries and exits was doubled and no vehicle was permitted to enter. Alemán’s visits were reduced to ten minutes each, one by one, every 15 days and only during the first three hours of the morning.
Bolaños justified these measures to put an end to “the conspiracies that ten, twenty, thirty people engage in there every day to oust the government.” Before that decision, Alemán had been receiving dozens of visits and even held political meetings in his “jail.” In the same vein, Bolaños refused to respect the Supreme Court’s August 30 resolution restoring Alemán’s conditional liberty and free movement around Managua.
Better free than cagedIt’s no secret that while only Liberal justices signed that resolution, the Sandinista justices supported it as well. At this point, Daniel Ortega doesn’t much care about the political price of appearing as Alemán’s liberator. It’s also common knowledge that while Alemán was convicted of serious crimes, his flitting in and out of different “jails” and his ultimate release—either pardoned or winning an appeal for “lack of evidence”—will be the product of political negotiations among those waging the institutional war that is keeping the country so off balance.
In the current setting, with the failure of both Garza and the OAS, the Supreme Court’s validation of the constitutional reforms, the pact consolidated and President Bolaños even more isolated and weak, Daniel Ortega wanted to compensate Alemán for withstanding Garza’s pressures, give him some breathing space and get him out of the “cage” where Bolaños had stuck him. For how long? A politically active Alemán keeps Liberalism divided and the PLC legislative bench consolidated in its loyalty to him, ready to rubber stamp any new designs that come out of the pact.
Get rid of Bolaños? The next PLC-FSLN move against Bolaños could be to strip him of his immunity, try him on charges of electoral crimes and ultimately dismiss him. This is the “time bomb” that Ortega planted inside the 20-year sentence originally handed down against Alemán by Sandinista judge Juana Méndez, which included Bolaños among those alleged to have used embezzled money for his 2001 presidential campaign. In the ongoing war to gain institutional terrain, no one knows when this bomb is set to go off. The FSLN-PLC activates and deactivates it as circumstances warrant.
The PLC and FSLN National Assembly representatives left the device set to go off before they took their mid-year recess. In July they created two parliamentary commissions to investigate allegations that Bolaños and seven of his top current officials had concealed the origin of checks and donations amounting to $8 million and 25 million córdobas that were used to finance his 2001 presidential campaign. The commissions were to determine if there was sufficient merit in those allegations to withdraw their immunity and take them to court. Not surprisingly, both commissions reported in early August that there was.
The PLC-FSLN could now very well explode the bomb and put an end to the Bolaños government, creating a transition government to finish the period leading up to the November 2006 elections. Many aspects of the current climate make it tempting. For starters, Bolaños’ insistence on ignoring the Supreme Court resolutions is an act of extreme defiance with no legal basis and little support from the population—beyond what appears in the costly polls conducted by some of the media—and thus gives Ortega and Alemán a good “political” excuse to kick their initiative against him into high gear. The only thing Bolaños has going for him is the backing of foreign governments, but the international pressure from European ambassadors, Central American Presidents, inter-American mediators and US envoys has proven too ineffectual to halt any of the pact’s agreements.
Moreover, the same PLC and FSLN legislators that are going after Bolaños have been approving one by one all the laws demanded by the International Monetary Fund as conditions for signing a new three-year agreement with Nicaragua. They have thus earned no complaints from the international financing institutions, which is an important point in their favor.
There is also a propitious atmosphere in the rest of Latin America, where several countries immersed in crises at least as complex as Nicaragua’s have sacked their Presidents in internal political convulsions that outside pressures have been unable to contain.
For all that, it would be wise to remember that the widespread and growing unpopularity of Bolaños, a ruler who is on his way out in any event, does not add up to backing for the pact or the agreements growing out of it. In fact most Nicaraguans would be inclined to kick the whole lot of them out. While executed with great legal care, the PLC-FSLN agreements lack both democratic and ethical legitimacy, and the mechanisms Bolaños is using to elude them lack both legitimacy and national support. This huge gulf between legality and legitimacy, created by all parties, is a large part of the problem.
A tempting settingThe Latin American panorama is especially tempting to the FSLN. Daniel Ortega, Managua’s mayor Dionisio Marenco and various other Sandinista mayors around the country insist on demonstrating to the PLC leadership, big business and the population in general their magnificent relations with President Hugo Chávez. The idea that the FSLN could get Venezuela to supply Nicaragua petroleum at favorable prices is an important “comparative advantage.”
There is no more valuable resource today than petroleum. At these times of an apparently unstoppable rise in international crude prices, people from various ideologies—including The Wall Street Journal—have repeatedly praised Chavez’s Caribbean oil initiatives within his bold Bolivarian Alternative for the Americas project.
All this being said, however, the international scene isn’t all that important to the FSLN-PLC forces. Nicaragua isn’t a priority right now for anybody, not even the US government, which has fallen abruptly and unexpectedly into a complex crisis of its own following the apocalyptic effects of Hurricane Katrina, whose Dantesque results have been only heightened by the inhumane omissions of a terrible government. The consequences of “Katrinagate” for the Bush government are still unpredictable.
Candidates on paradeThere is also the possibility that Bolaños’ threatened dismissal will not come to pass, and that the threat will simply keep hanging like a sword over his head for a few more weeks or months. It is even possible that this sword could be resheathed in a return to what has been referred to as a “national dialogue” between the three groups, but that won’t put an end to their institutional war.
Could the results of next year’s general elections offer a way out of this war? It’s hard to imagine, given how firmly knotted the pact is.
If the US pressure on Alemán continues to yield no results, anti-Sandinista voters will go to the elections divided. The Alemán-controlled PLC will run an as-yet unknown presidential candidate—hand-picked by Alemán and ratified in the PLC’s April 2006 convention—in an alphabet soup alliance it has already forged with old and new groupings (PLF1913, GUL, PLIUN, PALI, ALCON, ANC, APC, PUCA, CAUS, CUS, BCD, PSN, PSD and PSC). On the other side will be the non- or anti-Alemán Liberals allied with Conservatives and other parties, whose candidate so far appears to be button-down-collar banker Eduardo Montealegre.
While Garza didn’t get Alemán to back off, he did trigger a parade of candidates aspiring to be the anti-Sandinista standard bearer on the joint ticket the United States is still hoping for. Heading the list are Montealegre, José Antonio Alvarado, Ramiro Sacasa and current Vice President José Rizo, each with his unique style of flaunting his merits and sucking up to the big neighbor in the North.
Right divided, Left divided:Daniel Ortega’s political strategy for winning the presidency next year has revolved around keeping the PLC and anti-Sandinista voters in general divided. Alemán’s fate is the lynchpin of this strategy: Alemán stripped of his immunity, Alemán in the courts, Alemán behind bars, Alemán sort of serving his time, Alemán not caving in to gringo pressures, Alemán the pact partner, Alemán on parole...
Four major electoral options?
According to the moment and the circumstances, Alemán has helped Ortega keep this division festering, in part out of limited options, in part out of a megalomaniacal ego, and perhaps in part for reasons none of us has yet fathomed. But if the anti-Sandinista Right’s division is still a reality following Garza’s failure, there are also rifts within the pro-Sandinista part of the population.
Just as the proof of corruption weakened Alemán’s leadership, so has Daniel Ortega been affected by his pact with such a corrupt figure. Ortega has paid a very high political price for seven years of a two-party pact that, while reaping well-paid and powerful jobs in top government posts for both sides, has also been accompanied by the dramatic impoverishment of the population and the demobilization of the Sandinista base.
Any speculations at this point about the 2006 electoral results are based on the real possibility of four strong candidates: two from the anti-Sandinista ranks, one pro-Alemán and one opposed to him; and two Sandinistas, with Ortega’s hegemony threatened this time around by somebody offering a alternative direction for Sandinismo.
As Garza summed things up to PLC president Jorge Castillo Quant, “We can’t make caudillismo disappear from the minds of our compatriots overnight. Unfortunately, no other Alemán has emerged, just as no one like Ortega has emerged in the FSLN.” While you’d think Garza would be more careful what he wishes for, the rest of us are left asking whether an election divided among four potentially strong candidates, only two of whom will likely be of the caudillo mold, could perhaps initiate the gradual disappearance of that eminently Latin American caudillo/hacendado/father figure described in the article “Father Knows Best” in this same issue. Might it also help dilute the two-party Sandinismo/anti-Sandinismo polarization that has rent the country apart for over 25 years?
Another Sandinista pole? This month, former Sandinista mayor of Managua Herty Lewites finally gave up on his tenacious efforts to replace three-time loser Daniel Ortega as the FSLN’s presidential candidate, instead turning his attention to two other political families courting him, both of which have an assured slot on the presidential ballot. On August 14, the Christian Alternative Party, which split from the Christian Way, taking part of its evangelical membership with it, offered him pride of place on its ticket. The Christian Alternative is headed by Orlando Tardencilla, a hero of the Sandinista youth in the eighties.
A week later, the Sandinista Renovation Movement pulled out of the National Convergence alliance with the FSLN and offered Lewites not only its presidential candidacy, but also its party structures and the organizational experience and “red and black mystique” its members have accumulated both before and since splitting with the FSLN in 1995, which Lewites has accepted. The MRS is headed by Dora María Téllez, heroine of the insurrectionary struggle against Somoza and minister of health during the Sandinista government. MRS members believe that Lewites’ popularity plus the high intellectual, political and moral level of the Sandinistas who opted to leave the FSLN and go with the MRS can challenge Ortega’s longstanding monopoly over Sandinismo and the Left in general and even build a national project that can help change the course of the country. There’s no doubt that Lewites’ Movement to Rescue Sandinismo, which is backed by a dozen or so historic FSLN figures who represented the revolution internationally in the eighties, has made a qualitative leap by allying with the MRS. As this issue was going to press, it was announced that the MRS and the Christian Alternative decided to run together in the Coast elections to test the waters.
A rumor and an opinionOrtega and the other FSLN leaders have either ignored or minimized the MRS break with the Convergence and the stimulus this could offer the larger Sandinista family, those who for some time have opposed the FSLN’s current path but have seen no viable alternative. Ortega and his group are now calculating which of the decisions before them will have the least political cost: letting Lewites participate on one of those other tickets, or blocking his participation with some fabricated ruling from either the judicial or the electoral branch, both of which they largely control.
While that’s being figured out, some in the FSLN have started the rumor—spread also by some anti-Sandinistas—that in the end Herty and Daniel will make their peace and cut some self-serving deal. While this is hardly unheard-of in FSLN annals, many think this rumor is unfounded but with a very concrete intent: to curtail any inspiration to rescue the FSLN from the stranglehold of Ortega and his friends, nip reflection in the bud and demobilize Sandinistas from forging or backing any other electoral option. Why go to all that trouble if they suspect their efforts are only going to be trumped by some backroom arrangement?
While this rumor is flowing in some circles, others are toying with the idea of a ticket featuring both Lewites and Montealegre—who between them head all popularity polls by several lengths—in a great anti-pact alliance to defeat both “caudillos” in the first round of voting. But an anti-pact victory won’t resolve all of Nicaragua’s problems. Such a forced ticket would be a hodgepodge of imprecise objectives and contradictory interests incapable of weaving together a program that could offer some solution for all.
Dora María Téllez was quite clear about the thesis that the growing cross-class and cross-political anti-pact mobilization could potentially support such a ticket: “I wouldn’t confuse the general aspirations of a movement that is finding consensus regarding the existing political system with an electoral movement, because there are different forces. I feel highly distanced from Eduardo Montealegre, because he represents the wealthy. There’s nothing wrong with that; what’s wrong is that he doesn’t represent the poor.” Orlando Tardencilla said it even more succinctly: “We put it to Herty that under no circumstances did we want to link up with any member of the BOA, that three-headed serpent represented by Bolaños, Ortega and Alemán.” For some time now Montealegre has been Bolaños’ heir apparent and was his treasury minister until resigning to pursue the presidential nomination.
A lot remains to be done It’s still a long way to the elections, and a lot remains to be done to make any emerging Sandinista alternative attractive and convincing. Any movement with Lewites as its candidate must quickly define its social priorities and learn to speak the truths that Nicaragua needs to hear, leaving behind the hackneyed, vacuous discourse about the “pact of caudillos” and the verbal diatribe against its two leaders. Nicaragua deserves and desperately needs much more.
Fifteen years of electoral democracy devoid of social consensus have shown just how much Nicaragua needs the energies of that Sandinismo that mobilized a hundred thousand young people to defeat illiteracy 25 years ago, energies that have been manipulated, stolen and anesthetized by the FSLN and the Ortega group. Could those energies be recovered and rejuvenated? And will they be able to attract other national energies that are fed up with the corruption of Alemán’s brand of politics, the authoritarianism of Ortega’s and the social indifference of Bolaños’?
Since 1990, Nicaragua has seen its sovereignty eroded and the three post-revolutionary governments abandon all effort at social justice, leaving the laws of the market to resolve our scandalous inequalities. The result has been hunger, joblessness, massive emigration, a million children not in school, an ailing population and the future mortgaged to the globalized world of banking and business.
A national alternative?National sovereignty and social justice were General Sandino’s banners. We now know that there will be no sovereignty or justice without democracy. And we know that electoral democracy isn’t enough to make any progress at all in this brave new world if we don’t achieve a national consensus around Nicaragua’s indispensable and immediate needs for sovereignty and justice.
Could the Movement to Rescue Sandinismo, initiated by Lewites and now joined by other Sandinista groups, represent all this? Will Lewites’ popularity in the polls translate into votes if he’s forced to compete with the FSLN’s traditional red and black colors from an unrecognized slot on the ballot?
How far could such an electoral option get? As far as the presidency? As far as a majority of legislative representatives, or at least far enough to block those currently in a pact that allows them to legislate and enrich themselves at will? Will it even be able to overcome the obstacles that will surely be thrown in its path by the pact, which controls the whole electoral process? And how far will this effort get politically? Could it break the mental monopoly that Ortega still maintains over a good part of the Nicaraguan population?
It’s still too soon to say, but not too soon to perceive that there’s something new and good on the table. It’s not only not a lesser of evils, and might even be a greater good, although just how great will depend on the work ahead.
Nothing is yet predictableOne of the many unanswered questions is whether the country has finally touched bottom in this intolerable institutional war. Or must we continue putting up with “more of the same” every new day?
Have the country’s political caciques begun to lose their capacity to control the forces and trends they themselves unleashed? What, for example, will Ortega do in response to Lewites’ Sandinista movement? And will Alemán continue refusing to throw in the towel even if cases continue against him in Panama and Miami for using their banks to launder money stolen from Nicaragua’s public coffers. The dates for both trials have now been set, with the first hearing in Panama announced for November. The one in Miami was initially scheduled for early September, but Alemán’s defense team got it postponed to January 2006.
Will Enrique Bolaños be able to finish his term? At what price? His government has been unable to deal with this crisis because it has virtually no national backing, which in turn is because it has consistently isolated itself from the Nicaraguan people by acting at the exclusive service of the most powerful economic groups, following the US government like a faithful dog. The anti-pact marches of the past few months—in Managua, Granada, and most recently Chinandega on August 28—are novel expressions of collective venting covered profusely by some media, but with as yet uncertain political results. The backing of such a broad array of forces—not the least the big business umbrella organization COSEP—creates distrust among those fearful of inadvertently lending themselves to an underlying political agenda they disagree with.
Could the still distant 2006 electoral definition modify the course set by the FSLN-PLC pact? If so, to what degree? Can Nicaragua be moved onto a different path simply by electing new political parties not beholden to the pact or candidates not named by either Alemán or Ortega? Might we see some unexpected shift even before the elections?
Will President Bolaños finally decree the state of emergency he continually threatens? And if so, what will that “emergency” mean exactly? What will the army do if the crisis worsens?
Will the pact consolidate or will it lose its ability to legitimize and institutionalize itself? If it consolidates, will we have to accept that we’ve arrived at a dictatorship and use this as the basis for identifying any future scenarios. If the pact loses its capacity, anything is possible… although nothing is predictable.