How Will This Interminable Conflict End?
Numerous actors in Nicaragua, some with better intentions than others,
are trying to build a bridge to get us from today’s conflicts
to next year’s elections and perhaps beyond.
If that bridge is to lead to a democratic and just future,
Its pillars must be firmly embedded in national sovereignty.
One of the first missions of José Miguel Insulza, the new secretary general of the Organization of American States (OAS), involved a brief trip to Nicaragua several months ago to resolve its institutional crisis; he left the country empty-handed and dismayed. This month he referred to what he had encountered as “the most frustrating” and “interminable” crisis in all of Latin America.
How far will this crisis go? Trusting that it will finish some day, how will it end, and when? This month one of the main protagonists of the crisis, FSLN leader Daniel Ortega, stunned those who have been enduring the chaos for so long by promising to resolve it “in 24 hours.” He didn’t, of course, but it was an indication of just how many threads in this judicial and political snarl he has direct control over. Those of us who are more honest and realistic are preparing for many more days, weeks and months of it. Will it only end when a new President is elected in November 2006, perhaps with a new correlation of political forces? Many actors are busily building bridges to get us to that day on the far-side turf of their choosing.
September 22:As befits any interminable conflict, this war between the executive and legislative branches has its ups and downs and the occasional sharp spike. The sharpest in August was the Supreme Court’s August 30th resolution ratifying the constitutional reforms crafted by the PLC-FSLN pact. The same day, the Supreme Court also ratified a lower court decision granting convicted former President Arnoldo Alemán conditional liberty, i.e. absolute freedom of movement within the department of Managua. President Bolaños openly refused to respect either ruling. In the first case he argued that the reforms had been declared unviable by the Central American Court. In the second his response was to keep Alemán isolated in a room of his luxurious hacienda prison under the guard of 30 police officers. It was a drastic change from the sentence he had been serving poolside with a steady stream of political and personal visitors. It was expected from former showdowns that the next step would be under-the-table negotiations, with the President ultimately caving in to the Supreme Court decisions after realizing that he just doesn’t hold enough high cards to win any hand against his PLC-FSLN antagonists.
Another spike on the crisis meter
But the days ticked by and Bolaños didn’t fold, which brought us to the next spike, on September 22, when the National Assembly’s 43-member PLC bench and 38-member FSLN bench began stripping top government officials of their immunity so they could face charges of electoral crimes. The first two on the list were Government Minister Julio Vega and Deputy Agriculture Minister Mario Salvo, both close collaborators of the President.
As in August, it was a double-barreled shot. Almost simultaneously, the Liberal judges on Managua’s Appeals Court upheld the ruling on Alemán’s conditional liberty and ordered the Penitentiary System to withdraw the custodial forces keeping him isolated It also ruled that because the appeal of his 20-year sentence has not yet been heard and the sentence is thus not firm, he would enjoy all his political rights during this period of free movement around Managua, including participation in political activities. This comes just in time to increase his influence over the selection of the PLC’s presidential and legislative candidates—and sadder yet, the course of the nation.
It only took Alemán two days to make his first political pronouncement. He defended his party’s pact with the FSLN with the same anti-oligarchic, pro-national reconciliation arguments used by FSLN ideologues and attacked President Bolaños, warning that he would “pay the price” as soon as the PLC returned to power. He railed on against Bolaños, calling him an “ingrate and a traitor who tried to take over the party and subject liberalism to retrograde oligarchic ideas.” There are miscreants, he added, “who say that I gave away the party. No sirs, the cause of freedom and democracy is unbending.
What liberalism has done is exponentially increase coexistence, progress and development, and seek national stability, struggling against oligarchic and aristocratic principles that want to see Nicaragua destroyed. I want to tell you that its total, complete and steamrolling triumph depends on you, the grass roots. We squandered that triumph in 2001 by electing—and I by choosing—this person who today is misgoverning Nicaragua and has led us to a series of failures. But we’ll know how to choose the best for the 2006 national elections…” After this outburst, Alemán suddenly lowered his profile.
Outsiders and surveysThe Bolaños government has collapsed. The President’s strategy for ending the conflict and ensuring that he’ll be able to finish his mandate has two components, both of which are shaky. The first is to constantly seek resolutions from regional bodies and media declarations from heads of state, ambassadors or donors, either from afar or in Managua, that buttress his interpretation of the crisis. The second is to repeatedly feed the media public opinion surveys and other pulse-taking gimmicks showing that the majority of the population shares his opposition to the pact, the caudillos, the constitutional reforms, the Supreme Court, and thus, by implication, supports him.
Paradoxically, the strategy of emphasizing international backing only underscores the embarrassingly evident fact that Bolaños has lost the national support and trust that gave him his 2001 electoral victory. Not only is he a lame duck in his final year with no party behind him, but he has won a reputation for being pig-headed, arrogant and without an ounce of humility. He doesn’t appear to be in control of the situation and has none of the political skills displayed by his very able adversaries. The flaw in the survey strategy is that it reeks of trickery, with increasingly spoon-fed questions seeking ever more predictable answers. And in any case, few equate opposing the things he opposes with actually supporting him.
Playing the victimThis strategy confirms Bolaños’ greatest failing as a ruler: he has been incapable of mobilizing the population to support his cause. It also confirms his limited managerial vision of the function of government and his tendency to surround himself with technocrats unable to relate to the people, understand them, learn from them or seek their support.
With a traditional political culture barely rooted in legality or institutionality that feeds on passions and sentiments unleashed by the virtues and defects of politicians, Bolaños could perhaps recover some prestige if he were to renounce his immunity and risk a court trial. Doing so would show credible boldness, shed light on the origin of his election campaign financing and add a convincing edge to his denunciation of the pact, those in it and their constitutional reforms.
Might he do it? President Bolaños doesn’t show much interest in resolving the conflict. Letting it drag on and on allows him to play the victim and thus cloak his incompetence right through to the end of his administration. He might also be gambling that this victim’s role—“they didn’t let me govern”—would be his least damaging contribution to the election chances of the heir to his policies and his magnificent relations with the United States: most likely Eduardo Montealegre, another managerial figure.
A strange special mission On September 6, Bolaños received international support from his fellow Central American Presidents, and three days later the OAS reentered the fray with a resolution approved by acclamation calling on the PLC, the FSLN and the government of Nicaragua to sit down in a “broad and constructive dialogue, free of pressures and threats.” Two days after that, Bolaños met in private with Daniel Ortega. The public result was Ortega’s announcement that the processes to strip the immunity of the President and six of his ministers accused of electoral crimes in the 2001 elections was being suspended to facilitate the government’s return to the dialogue. The next day, during a trip to Costa Rica, Bolaños boasted of his sagacity: “I’m winning; the pact-makers are in disarray.”
Pressing his imaginary advantage two days later, he called Sandinistas bloodsucking ticks. And there we were again, witnessing yet another act in Nicaragua’s depressing political theater of the absurd when what we need more than anything are leaders with the political savvy and moral stature to lift us out of this interminable self-destruction.
Dante Caputo, the OAS delegate who is still in Nicaragua trying to make some breakthrough in the crisis, then called on the National Assembly to delay stripping the next four ministers of their immunity, “to avoid stoking up the fire.” He also met with Arnoldo Alemán to see about quenching the divisive fires in the Liberal ranks. He got nowhere. On September 28, the Liberal and Sandinista legislators voted in unison to withdraw the four ministers’ immunity.
Decrying the move as a coup d’état, President Bolaños solemnly announced a strange decision even before the judge had notified the ministers of their situation: he was sending them to Washington on a “special mission” to file human rights violation charges with the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR). What made it so strange was that this OAS body normally hears cases brought by citizens against their states and then only when all other avenues for national justice have been exhausted. In this case the plaintiffs were ministers of state and the judicial process has not even started.
Salamonic solutionsThe OAS is clearly interested in helping put an end to the crisis; it would be an important trophy for the regional organization. Its strategy has been building after continual frustrations that no one made any diplomatic effort to hide. In a September 29 letter to Bolaños and the presidents of the legislative, judicial and electoral branches, Insulza offered a package of ideas to keep the crisis from mounting further.
He proposed that Bolaños be allowed to finish out his term and that the constitutional reforms—the rock-bottom sticking point in the dispute—be suspended until the new presidential term. He also called for the reaching of “political reconciliation” agreements that would include “no innovation or aggravation of the indictment or penitentiary situation of government officials or political leaders.”
The secretary general’s proposal sounds Salomonic. While not insisting on Bolaños’ preferred solution of a referendum, Insulza proposed that the reforms be maintained “if they are an expression of popular will, endorsed by the vote of the different political forces.” And while protecting Bolaños’ Cabinet members from being used as political footballs, he also tried to do the same for Alemán, since the allusion to “penitentiary situation” can only refer to him. It is less evident whether the “reconciliation” that Insulza suggests is an implicit allusion to granting Alemán an amnesty.
Does it make any sense to search abroad for solutions to this crisis? The institutional agendas of organizations such as the OAS are not necessarily congruent with those of a country like Nicaragua, and what could be a solution for the OAS might only reaffirm and complicate the problems that gave rise to the conflict in the first place.
Daniel Ortega: I run things hereThroughout this crisis, Daniel Ortega has exhibited steadily increasing control over its continuous twists and turns. People on the street continuously comment that “he’s really running things in the country.” One day he appears “sparing Bolaños’ life” and assuring that his ministers can rest secure, and the next he’s again threatening to remove their immunity.
Thirty-two PLC members and allies, some of them top officials in Bolaños’ government, are charged in connection with misuse of government funds in the 2001 elections. Of those, 18, including Bolaños himself, are alleged authors of the crime, 9 are accused of involvement in the cover-up and the other 5 of complicity. This month Ortega threatened all of them publicly, by name and even showing their photographs. It was by way of warning them that although the FSLN-PLC pact selected only six ministers and one former campaign member to investigate, Ortega is unquestionably controlling this case in the courts. Ortega also continually reminds everyone that he and he alone is Alemán’s warden.
This month he saw to it that Alemán received his conditional liberty, both to ease some of the pressure the United States is putting on the prisoner and to make it easier for him to move the PLC levers. But the very next day the judges who answer to Ortega made sure to remind Alemán that he could find himself restricted to his hacienda again at any time. As long as Alemán’s sentence remains up in the air—and this depends on Sandinista judges—Ortega holds his jail key. Only an amnesty could remove it from his hands.
Wearing others down Daniel Ortega seems secure and triumphant. Rather than kicking Bolaños out of office early, his strategy appears to be to keep him so on the defensive that he commits errors that reveal his limitations. In contrast, Ortega appears before national public opinion and his party base as a statesman who offers solutions, be it to the transport problem, petroleum supply or the national dialogue. The message is that he’s the guy to get things done. And it’s not an image created with smoke and mirrors; the fact is that he really can get things done because he still commands the FSLN structures and the loyalty of many Sandinistas in important places. In sum, his strategy is pre-electoral: to ensure his presidential victory by shaping this image of omnipotence.
On three occasions Ortega has proposed moving the elections up from November 2006. This month he suggested bringing them forward eight months to March 5, to coincide with the elections in the two Caribbean autonomous regions and thus be economically more efficient (see “Nicaragua Briefs” in this issue for more details on the Caribbean elections). In addition to being a constant kick in the head to Bolaños’ image, it bolsters his own by subtly reminding Nicaraguans of his noble gesture during the Esquipulas peace negotiations in 1989 to move the 1990 elections from November to February 25.
The FSLN’s is without a doubt the only electoral machinery ready for the elections, and would be even if they were held tomorrow. The danger is that this machinery could begin to break down precisely because it’s constantly running at full throttle. Working to wear down others could end up eroding the strategist, as more and more people get fed up with what they are beginning to feel is excessive provocation, a mockery and a threat. Herty Lewites identified this sensation as a “bellyful.”
The growing leadership and political-esoteric influence exercised by Ortega’s wife Rosario Murillo in all FSLN structures is also getting to be a bit much. But at the end of the day, what is most undermining this strategy is that Ortega’s every move betrays his involvement in the pact and his ignominious, thick-as-thieves relationship with Alemán and his circle. Even the most pro-Ortega part of the Sandinista base finds this particularly hard to stomach.
Unlike the OAS, Daniel Ortega has no interest in ending the conflict. Dragging it out interminably allows him to promote his candidacy and to engage in an array of negotiations with both the PLC and Bolaños as the country teeters at the edge of the precipice to which he himself has dragged it.
A host of US arm-twisters Throughout this endless crisis, President Bolaños has continually requested support from the US government, and has gotten it time and again. After Bush’s special envoy Oliver Garza failed in his mission to pressure the PLC out of its pact with the FSLN and dangle carrots in front of Alemán in exchange for reuniting the anti-Sandinista movement to defeat Ortega in the elections, US meddling has only geared up even more.
On September 9, the new US ambassador, Paul Trivelli, presented his credentials. In what passes for diplomacy in the United States, his first declarations included a warning that stripping President Bolaños of his immunity would be an “international disaster” and a reminder of Daniel Ortega’s “dubious democratic credentials.” After the six ministers were stripped of their immunity, Travelli set aside any pretence at diplomacy that may have been possible with his dreadful Spanish. He referred to the National Assembly and Supreme Court decisions as political villainy raised to previously unseen heights. In his enthusiasm for his new mission he would appear to have lost sight of the fact that, while political maneuvering clearly underlay that move, these people are accused of a genuinely serious crime.
Days before that “political villainy” was perpetrated, Republican Congressman Dan Burton visited Nicaragua with three objectives: to lobby in favor of destroying the army’s remaining SAM-7 missiles and ratifying the Central American Free Trade Agreement (CAFTA), pressure the PLC anew and rattle sabers at Ortega. He dusted off the same euphemistic phrase Washington has employed in the run up to each of Nicaragua’s post-1990 elections—“It would be difficult to have a relationship of cooperation with [Ortega’s] government”—to remind voters of what its disapproval brought down on their heads in the revolutionary eighties. All Nicaraguans over the age of 25 understand the threat of economic embargo, psy-ops, constant propaganda warfare, licit and illicit support of the most reactionary opposition and possibly much worse. To cap this first warning salvo of Nicaragua’s new electoral season, the US House of Representatives’ Western Hemisphere Subcommittee approved a resolution on September 28 asking the Bush government to “actively” support democracy in Nicaragua.
A chain of bumblingThe United States is impatient, which mixed with its imperial arrogance results in bumbling and barefaced insults that offend Nicaragua. After barring no holds to get the FSLN out of power in 1990, the US government has not rested in its attempt to destroy Ortega and eliminate the FSLN altogether. But it has failed miserably. In fact, it has had more success in harming both the PLC and President Bolaños. Ever since Secretary of State Colin Powell’s 2003 visit to Managua to “counsel” Bolaños to break with and help destroy the FSLN, while cleansing the PLC of Alemán’s influence, Bolaños has stumbled from failure to failure and the institutional crisis has, to borrow a phrase, risen to previously unseen heights.
The US recurrence to disdainful language, relegating both Ortega and Alemán as museum pieces from an “obsolete past,” was similarly misguided. It has only aggravated the crisis and pushed the two offended caudillos into each others arms.
US rejection of Daniel Ortega is a historic, ideological relic from the war of the eighties that it revives each electoral period when faced with the horror that he might return to office. Not so the original US relationship with Alemán, which falls more neatly into the classic category of opportunist relations with scurvy characters who later refused to stick to the US script, including the Shah of Iran, Bin Laden and Panama’s General Noriega in their day. Alemán started out as the darling of Washington’s anti-Sandinista set, which supported him in government—that is, until he entered into a pact with Ortega that culminated in constitutional reforms and a divvying up of top government posts between their two parties, not to mention his embezzling of over $100 million in government funds. Even after Bolaños was in office and Alemán had been convicted of massively robbing the state coffers and laundering the evidence, both US officials and Bolaños have tried again and again to hammer out some kind of agreement with him, guaranteeing him a pardon, a clean record and luxurious exile, in exchange for letting loose of the PLC and getting out of politics. These attempts have only aggravated the crisis even more.
Zoellick: Nothing with AlemánThis month the United States changed tack. On October 5, US Under-Secretary of State Robert Zoellick came to Managua, at Bolaños’ request, to back up the government’s interpretation of the institutional crisis. But he also came with a threat: if the conflict goes on much longer, Nicaragua could lose the US$170 million it is earmarked to receive through the Bush government’s Millennium Challenge Account project.
His fundamental mission, however, was to explain the Bush government’s crude strategy for resolving the conflict from here through next year’s elections: open political and financial support for the “third way”—as he labeled the project of non-Alemán Liberal pre-candidates Eduardo Montealegre and José Antonio Alvarado. And, more importantly, absolute rejection of Arnoldo Alemán.
This was the central message of Zoellick’s press conference: “I don’t want to leave any doubt in anyone’s mind that the United States is not going to do some arrangement with the corrupt Alemán… The United States will not welcome corrupt people in our country, and so over the last days we’ve taken actions to block the Alemán family and corrupt associates from entering the United States.” Zoellick is already well known in Nicaragua as the unyielding, no-nonsense US negotiator who spent a year getting exactly what the United States wanted out of CAFTA. The harshness of his words were rendered even cruder by his translator, who used the word “criminal,” which in Spanish is usually reserved for strictly bloody crimes. This common translating error made the offense to Alemán even grosser than it already was, and of course the word was splashed across the newspapers the next day.
The PLC leadership responded in a communiqué dripping with rhetoric: “[Zoellick] has no right, lacks the most basic notion of international courtesy and has inflicted an outrage on Nicaraguans, an unheard-of scandalous act.” While they were at it they denounced President Bolaños for “intrigues that have so disfigured the real facts that the Government of Washington sees things through the prism of passion.” In conclusion, they called on “the stigma of History and the anathema of free peoples [to] fall over these traitors.”
Stigmas, anathemas and more exacting translations aside, the reality is that Robert Zoellick came to mark territory. It was a blunt warning to all Liberal politicians who are starting to flock around Alemán again, and even more particularly to large private Nicaraguan business, which is vacillating about the four probable electoral options in this otherwise unpredictable country.
Following Zoellick’s razor-edged pronouncement and the punitive cancellation of the US entry visas held by 30 government officials, political leaders, relatives and cohorts of Alemán, the PLC could start to crumble, to the point that maintaining ties to the FSLN could be the only strategy left to Alemán and those closest to him, at least for the near future. The pact with Ortega assures Alemán a definitive release due to “lack of evidence”—which is more appealing to the FSLN than amnesty—and survival from here to the elections. Even more importantly, it makes it possible for both men to continue governing through the combined votes of their respective benches in the legislative branch, no matter who wins the presidency. If these two dominant parties were to fail to win the majority of National Assembly seats between them next year due to two-way splits among both the pro-Sandinista and anti-Sandinista tickets, it would be a more unimaginable and consequential upset than losing the presidency itself, given the shift of powers from the executive to the legislative branch orchestrated by their own constitutional reforms.
Hard choices for big businessA month before Zoellick’s visit, on September 9, the Conservative Party (PC) joined forces with the Nicaraguan Liberal Alliance (ALN) headed by banker, former Bolaños administration treasury minister and current presidential aspirant Eduardo Montealegre, who bases his hopes on strong and steady support in the polls, US backing and a broad anti-Sandinista alliance at home. The PC thus ensured itself the vice presidential slot on Montealegre’s ticket and 30% of the 90 National Assembly candidacies. Already on the ALN bandwagon are the decades-old Independent Liberal Party, the Liberal Salvation Movement founded by Eliseo Núñez when he split from Alemán, and a fraction of the Resistance Party (which grew out of the US-funded “contra” military movement of the eighties).
Another other group of anti-Alemán Liberals is headed by José Antonio Alvarado, a respected three-time minister during Alemán’s term who fell out with him over his independent tendency and yen for the PLC’s 2001 presidential nomination. Adding to the anti-Sandinista options, no fewer than seven Liberal leaders still within PLC aspire to be anointed by Alemán as the presidential candidate of that party, which has busily been making alliances with a dozen tiny parties. Several analysts have concluded that none of the seven have any chance of winning the elections, and it is even rumored that Alemán has already promised to select a losing candidate in exchange for Ortega promising to instruct his loyal judges to absolve Alemán of his crimes.
Meanwhile, big business doesn’t know which number to put its money on. It’s interested in seeing Herty Lewites run because his popularity is sure to divide the Sandinista vote, but it won’t back him because he’s a Sandinista. Do these business leaders fear a possible return to social justice and national sovereignty with this “rescue of Sandinismo”? They are, after all, quite comfortable with Ortega’s corruption and lack of principles because they can negotiate with him and he doesn’t call them to account.
And while they like the idea of a unified anti-Sandinista candidate to defeat Ortega, they have understood during this interminable conflict that it’s not so easy to replace Alemán’s leadership in the PLC. They also recognize that the PLC has an experienced, organized electoral machinery with proven experience, unmatched by anything that Montealegre or any other anti-Sandinista aspirant could put together.
Recently, big names in Nicaraguan business had been publicly advocating amnesty for Alemán, in the name of “national reconciliation.” They were even ready to negotiate possible candidates for legislative representatives and ministerial portfolios with the prisoner. But with his serial killer face and the words to match, Zoellick has warned them not even to think of going down that road.
The most painful partGiven the course the conflict is taking, this ongoing crisis will probably not end before the November 2006 elections, and perhaps not even then. Many people imagine it resolved by drastic solutions, including a decision by the Nicaraguan army—apparently the most solid and independent institution in all this disarray—to shut down the institutions and kick the whole lot of current actors out. It would be a surrealist ending, but one not unfamiliar to Latin Americans.
Others are sure that the people themselves will call an end to the disorder by taking to the streets. That was the vision expressed by Nicaragua’s representative to the OAS when in an excess of rhetorical voluntarism he suggested that “the citizenry could mobilize and close the National Assembly.” While the people of other Latin American countries have indeed taken to the streets to oust worthless leaders, there is little chance of it happening in Nicaragua because the institutional conflict and the pact are not the most troubling and painful problems for the majority of the population, which is more concerned about unemployment, hunger and—most hidden of all—the violence and enmity in people’s own homes.
It’s time we learnedThe bridge we all need to take us from here to the elections a little over a year from now appears rickety to say the least, and given the parties shaping up for the electoral game there is little confidence that it will even hold up. The possibility of candidates who threaten the PLC-FSLN being inhibited is creating uncertainty among those of us who are trying to buttress the bridge or build another sturdier one.
The greatest instability, however, is coming as usual from the United States, since the only bridge it cares about building is one that is closed to Daniel Ortega. Washington is determined to promote a “grand national alliance” to prevent Ortega from taking power again. And we can’t discard the possibility that it will attempt to sully the movement headed by Lewites to guarantee victory for its own particular choice.
Anything can be expected from the United States of Amnesia, as Gore Vidal dubbed it. The US government and a good part of its population fails to learn from its mistakes because it thumbs its nose at history. Its faith in the belief that might makes right leads it to start from square one every time it comes up against a problem. Nicaragua has paid an immense cost for being permanently within the radar beam of US attention and because Washington is utterly incapable of comprehending that political or military foreign intervention in the internal affairs of other nations only produces greater instability, above all when the US intervenes exclusively in its own interests.
A bridge of sovereigntyIf the United States cannot and will not learn, then it falls to us to learn a basic lesson about the construction of any bridge capable of leading us to some kind of crisis resolution: there will be no democracy without sovereignty. Sovereignty permits the political forces vying for power to reach some equilibrium, and that in turn is a precondition for the consolidation of democracy.
More concretely in this instance, sovereignty limits the resources available to the political actors competing for control of the state, obliging them to seek agreements and negotiations within their own country. When an international meddler such as the United States elbows its way onto the political scene, it eliminates any possibility of the national consensus needed to consolidate a democratic order. It only stirs up instability and reaffirms the age-old political culture that pushes our leaders to conduct their politics with both eyes on the US Embassy and their hopes on Washington.
If the disrespectful and irresponsible actions of US representatives continue to mount in the run-up to the election, and if the political class and the population don’t react appropriately, it’s very unlikely that the bridge will remain solid enough to keep us from falling into the abyss.