New Times? Güegüense Times
2005, year of the great crisis, is coming to an end. The Framework Law put the crisis on hold so we can move into 2006, the year of the great decision, with a presidential race that promises to be hard-fought and bitter, because in the land controlled by the caudillos, the Güegüenses are dancing.
The Nicaraguan play El Güegüense o Macho-Ratón, written in Spanish and Nahuatl by an anonymous playwright, has been a cultural treasure of our country since it was written in the 17th century—making it the oldest preserved theatrical text in Latin America. UNESCO has now been recognized it as a Masterpiece of the Oral and Intangible Heritages of Humanity. We celebrate this deserved recognition of the literary values of this brilliant work, which universalizes something of the mestizo identity of Nicaraguans from the Pacific side of the country.
Two kinds of GüegüenseThe Güegüense is an old mestizo peddler—more indigenous than Spanish—who crisscrosses Mesoamerica with his two sons in the times of the Spanish Colony, buying and selling all kinds of merchandise. In Nicaragua, the Spanish governor Tastuanes, is broke and in crisis. With his chief constable, his clerk and his councilman, he seeks to impose himself, to exercise control, to charge taxes. In response, the Güegüense plays dumb, turns the governor into his client, gets him all confused, tricks him, mocks him, doesn’t pay him a cent and turns the tables on him time and again in hilarious dialogues. And he dances and dances and dances. At the end, his oral and commercial skills even enable him to marry his son Forcico off to Suche Malinche, the governor’s daughter. That is the gist of this masterpiece of words, music and dance.
What does it mean to be Güegüense? Is it indeed the essence of being Nicaraguan? There is constant debate between those who reject the Güegüense as a vulgar, irresponsible and cunning liar, and those who embrace him as astute, roguish, a leveler and a rebel against authority. Although we fall on the side of the more positive reading of El Güegüense’s verbal, dancing and political juggling, we also recognize both types of Güegüense in Nicaragua: the shameless scoundrel and the anarchistic rebel. One confuses to benefit from the lie and the other to mock and defeat the powers that be.
A challenge to El Güegüense is universal because it is firmly rooted in a concrete time and space. And it is also a political work that speaks of power relations, of the authoritarian and arbitrary power of a model in crisis, which is challenged from below—in a very unequal correlation of forces—by humor, ingenuity and resistance. The Güegüense denounces and stands up to the colonial power and a new path and history are forecast in the mestizo’s final victory. This is the positive reading of the play.
But we can also see an uncanny reflection of the current political moment in El Güegüense. Nicaragua is finishing 2005 trapped in a crisis-ridden Tastuanic power scheme, as authoritarian as it is arbitrary, which its designers are bent on prolonging, controlling any other possible alternative that challenges it. And it is starting 2006 with a novel electoral process that challenges our imagination, ingenuity and resistance, in a very fragile correlation of forces. And that’s why the Güegüenses have been appearing.
Bolaños’ “honeymoon” For nearly the entire year, the country’s institutions and political class—and society’s most informed sectors—were focused on the conflict between President Bolaños and the legislative body, which in January passed constitutional reforms to cement the control designed by Daniel Ortega and Arnoldo Alemán in their pact.
with strange bedfellows
The two men came up with this scheme to share out institutional leadership and trade off power, although each also had more ulterior motives: Alemán wanted to recover his freedom within the resulting disorder and Ortega to show his proven capacity to generate such disorder then later sort it all out and provide stability at will. The pact is the work of a pair of Güegüenses… in the most negative sense of the word.
The conflict arose when President Bolaños refused to acknowledge the duly approved constitutional reforms. That impasse lasted most of the year, until just over a month ago he and Ortega agreed to a “framework law,” which postponed the reforms until the newly elected President of Nicaragua takes office in January 2007. The apparent trade-off was that Ortega would drop the extortionist threat of trials and possible imprisonment for alleged electoral crimes against Bolaños and a number of other PLC officials from the past and present administrations.
If this conclusion was a relief to the Organization of American States, which mediated the crisis in its later months, the most relieved of all has been President Bolaños. “Let’s hope that this harmony, this honeymoon, lasts quite a while, at least until I leave,” he confessed with a smile, calmed by the prospect of finishing out his term in the presidential chair and not in jail.
More was at stake for Bolaños than the accusations against him. This “honeymoon” also ensured him legislative ratification of the Central American Free Trade Agreement and passage of next year’s budget, which puts Nicaragua back on track with the International Monetary Fund’s program, designed according to IMF directives without so much as a grumble by Bolaños’ economic team.
At the start of his mandate Bolaños wanted to be the best Tastuanes in the nation’s history, but he ended up confused and dazed by the interminable dances of two shrewd Güegüenses. While satisfied because he won’t have to give up his presidential sash until January 2007, he appears a lamer duck than most, with nothing much left to do in the coming year. Nonetheless, once everybody’s feathers had been calmed back into place, Bolaños announced that “unforgettable” progress will be made in 2006. Was it just more hyperbole or does he know more than he’s telling? If he truly believes there will be progress, it’s not hard to guess the beneficiaries.
A budgetary first Shortly after Ortega and Bolaños reached their agreement for the framework law, the 2006 budget was finally approved with the votes of the PLC bench and the handful of legislators who support Bolaños. It was, in other words, a rightwing expression of the honeymoon, although in his usual rhetoric Bolaños gave more credit to “God’s hand” than the Liberals.
In the opinion of economist Adolfo Acevedo, who has been campaigning for a transparent budget for years, the most positive thing about next year’s budget is that for the first time ever it complies with the constitutional mandate to register all income sources and all public administration expenses. It is also the first time that the full list of projected loans and donations has been recorded.
Previously an important part of these categories was always left out with the deliberate aim of reducing the base figure on which various constitutionally fixed allocations are calculated: universities 6%, judicial branch 4%, and, according to the reform made this year, municipalities 6% in 2006, to rise a percentage point a year until topping out at 10% in 2010. This new transparency is the result of pressures from civil society.
In his evaluation of the budget, Acevedo again repeated his constant criticism of what he sees as the most worrying aspect of Bolaños administration budgets: payment on the domestic and foreign public debts, which in 2006 will absorb no less than 20% of state spending. Worse yet, the country will pay two and a half times more to private national bankers on the domestic debt than it will pay on the foreign debt.
The domestic debt:Just under half of the domestic debt is earmarked for payment on the indemnification bonds for properties confiscated during the Sandinista government in the eighties. And nearly all the rest is earmarked for payment on what are known as CENI bonds, issued following the three major bank collapses in 1999 and 2000, one each for the Liberals, Sandinistas and Conservatives.
Hitting a raw nerve
Acevedo’s team in the Civil Coordinator has shown that there was no legal basis for issuing the CENI bonds, which violated the Constitution, the Central Bank Organic Law, the Law of the Superintendence of Banks and the General Banking Law, to name but a few. Now the team claims to have evidence that it was “largely an enormous and deliberate operation to sack the public treasury.” The evidence consists of lists of the collapsed banks’ loans that were “reclassified” in what the team calls a “conspiratorial, illegal and fraudulent manner” by the Central Bank and the banks that took over those loan portfolios, particularly Banpro and Bancentro. Liberal presidential aspirant and banker Eduardo Montealegre is a leading figure in the latter bank.
This reclassification of the portfolio was a key element of the process that culminated in the issuance of the CENIs, because the total amount of the bond issue was decided by the portfolio size. Acevedo argues that “the reclassification may have multiplied the cost the state had to assume as a result of the collapses. We know that the bulk of the CENIs issued for the failed banks were not to ‘back public deposits,’ as some officials of both the Bolaños and Alemán governments claim. A large part of the bonds resulted from fraudulently reclassifying the credit portfolio in favor of the banks’ privileged clients.”
More debt payment meansIt’s not out of line to recall the cost of prioritizing payment to the bond-holding national banks when assigning the nation’s budgetary resources. In doing so, Nicaragua is reassigning indispensable resources that should be urgently earmarked for public health and education, thus jeopardizing our country’s chances of achieving the UN Millennium Development Goals.
less health and education
On November 14, three thousand doctors from the country’s public hospitals, grouped into what they are calling “Pro-Salary Doctors,” launched a strike in which they only treated emergencies and already hospitalized patients. They are demanding a 140% salary increase, which would merely bring them in line with public-sector doctors in most of Central America. (Their current base salary is equivalent to $400 a month, with paramedics earning half that amount). Three days later they were joined by around twenty-five thousand nurses, nurses’ aides, lab workers, administrators and cleaning personnel grouped in the public health workers’ union (FETSALUD), who have their own salary demands. The budget for next year includes a minimum increase for public health.
The power scheme Although the legislative representatives came under pressure from both these salary demands and the mayors of the country’s municipalities, who want to ensure that central government transfers match the legally established percentage, nothing could disturb the honeymoon that has “stabilized” the country. With everybody prioritizing the 2006 political scenario, all energies are already turned to the electoral race.
is coming unraveled
Next year will be one of great uncertainty and political novelties, although Alemán and Ortega would have liked to have gone one on one in the elections with few of either. Their pact was all about consolidating a bipartite system of institutional control and perpetuating polarized elections between pro-Sandinistas and anti-Sandinistas. This scheme was designed for the long haul and buttressed by constitutional changes in the balance of power between the executive and legislative branches that allow the losing party to still win significant influence in the National Assembly and thus a sizable quota of power. That win-win scheme, however, appears to be coming unraveled.
Lewites—a good GüegüenseDaniel Ortega wanted nothing more than to compete against a divided Liberal electorate. But along came Herty Lewites and started playing in the Sandinista leader’s turf. A positive Güegüense, Lewites weaves snares as he talks, challenges laughingly and plays stubbornly, all within a profoundly unequal correlation of forces, because Ortega, though increasingly in crisis, still has a lot of Tastuanic power.
The situation is delicate, but challenging. The danger is that Lewites, the movement he is heading and all Nicaraguans could end up compromised. He has consolidated his Güe-güense character as someone who can give Ortega a run for his money and generate empathy in the most diverse segments of the population. On the way he has donned and shed various costumes as agilely as any professional quick-change artist: as an aspirant to share the FSLN presidential ticket with Ortega, as an ally of Bolaños, as God’s anointed, as the genuine bearer of the Sandinista torch…
Perhaps this is necessary because anyone who wants to run as an independent candidate has to perform at least several of the dances of power—there are 14 in the prize-winning play. But this dancing must end, and once it does, the masks will fall. Lewites has to calculate the precise moment to reveal himself as a candidate who can unify the nation, and not just Sandi-nistas who have shaken off their loyalty to—or fear of—the Daniel clique. He has to attract that majority of Nicaraguans whose poverty and lack of opportunities make them the natural targets of a national leftist program.
The dance has to end and a clear, honest, consistent and attractive discourse must be articulated to explain what it means to form part of a nation, to be part of a dream and a collective program—in short to remind us of Sandino’s historical legacy.
And what about theMeanwhile, what’s going on in Alemán’s turf? With the important new spin that Lewites has put on the race, Alemán must be delighted with the possibility that the candidate chosen from his hacienda jail could compete with a divided Sandinista electorate. Many questions still remain. Will two Liberal candidates run or will the Liberals end up unifying? And if the latter, will it be around the PLC machinery and Alemán’s candidate? And will that candidate be Bolaños’ Vice President, José Rizo, together with José Antonio Alvarado? Rizo with some Conservative, such as Noel Vidaurre? Or will it be Eduardo Montealegre? Is this button-down banker still the US favorite? And how well would he do on some other ticket against a PLC candidate?
The Liberals are still working on their game plan, but they have already divided Bolaños’ government between those who support Alemán through Rizo and those gambling on Montealegre. Meanwhile, in the name of APRE, Bolaños’ failed creation, Alvarado is playing both sides. Who’s the Güe-güense in the Liberal camp? Some say Rizo; others say Alvarado. It’s hard to know because these figures dance tirelessly but silently. But knowing what they want, it’s a safe bet they’re offering nothing we haven’t already seen.
And Montealegre? He’s no Güe-güense because there’s not a drop of humor or of authenticity in him. He looks natural in the official photos with his perfect smile and sparkly eyes, but he’s a hollow man, masquerading as real people among the market merchants.
How unraveled is it?What will unify the Liberals? Will the old anti-Sandinista rallying cry that united the vote for Violeta Chamorro, Arnoldo Alemán and Enrique Bolaños be good enough now that Herty Lewites is on the scene and the popular support for him is holding firm? Novem-ber’s poll by Borge & Assoc.—the only firm that predicted Chamorro’s victory in 1990—suggests that Nicaragua may no longer be divided between Sandi-nistas and non-Sandinistas. The dividing line doesn’t even seem to be between people who favor the pact and those who oppose it. Is it between Ortega supporters and opponents of Ortega?
Everything’s in constant motion because the Tastuanic model of institutional control is unraveling. How seriously? How much has moved? How many have already joined the dance, the indignation, the rebellion? A transparent election with four options—Ortega’s band, Alemán’s band, Monte-alegre’s Liberal banking option and Lewites’ Sandinista option—would be a good measure of how much the country has moved politically and in what direction. It would show the extent of the population’s rejection of the caudillos, how much the Sandinista consciousness has matured after so many years under the thumb of Daniel’s group, and how much the lead weight of Alemán’s corrupt acts has pulled down his leadership.
An election among these four options would be hard fought and independent of the presidential victor would give us a National Assembly free of today’s pact-bound majority, perhaps even without any majority. It would be a pluralist parliament where the parties would have to learn to negotiate among more or less equally weighted groups.
A tough campaignThis year is coming to an end without Arnoldo Alemán having been freed either by the courts for supposed lack of evidence or in the National Assembly through an amnesty. It is ending without Daniel Ortega having “stabilized” a situation that will ensure him victory. Neither man, either individually or in cohoots, has control of the situation anymore. They don’t even control their respective party’s captive vote anymore. In the Borge poll, Ortega is in third place in voter preferences and the PLC—which will not announce its presidential candidate until April—is running a distant fourth.
Herty Lewites is in first place and Montealegre second. This upset is the real novelty. Will it hold firm during the long months that separate us from the elections and what promises to be a very nasty electoral campaign? “The campaign,” predicts Dora María Téllez, president of the Sandinista Renovation Movement, which is in an alliance with Lewites, “will be pure hardball, because neither Arnoldo Alemán nor Daniel Ortega are just going to sit around with their arms folded as they drop down to third or fourth place. The whole year will be one conspiracy after another. We’re going to see all kinds of spectacles, pirouettes, tricks and abuses.”
The Güegüense In an apt image, political pundit Emilio Álvarez Montalván suggested some months ago that Tastuanic power in Nicaragua was like a “Bermuda triangle” capable of swallowing up everything. At the time, he placed Alemán, Ortega and Cardinal Obando in the vertexes of that triangle, but things are so in flux now that one can even appreciate novelties and movements in Obando’s vertex.
of the third vertex
It is falling to the new archbishop of Managua, Monsignor Leopoldo Brenes, to be the Güegüense here—in its positive version. He is always smiling, talks softly and persuasively to everyone and dances to his own beat, keeping his distance from political themes and traditional power.
At the end of November, Brenes, characterized by an inclusive and thus very Christian pastoral style, was elected president of Nicaragua’s Bishops’ Conference until 2008, a post previously held by Cardinal Obando, by right or by might, for 30 years. Monsignor Bernardo Hombach, bishop of Granada, who shares Brenes’ pastoral style, was elected vice president and Monsignor René Sandigo, bishop of Juigalpa, a Franciscan who also dances to the same tune, was elected secretary.
Monsignor Brenes has said that he is making “adjustments” in the arch-diocesan church posts, seeking to fill them with people who are closer to him as the new archbishop.
Slowly but surely Jean Paul Gobel, the papal nuncio in Nicaragua, reportedly played a crucial role in convincing Rome to accelerate Obando’s retirement from the Archdiocese. While Obando still has a lot of symbolic power, with the majority of the political class continuing to play him official courtesies, the jurisdictional changes since his reign as archbishop came to an end in May will slowly displace him. He is losing influence in the Church.
things are changing
A source linked to Managua’s ecclesial structures remarked to envío that “change was necessary.” With respect to the significance of the “adjustments” in one of the solidest vertices of the triangle, our source called them “positive and beneficial for the Church,” explaining that “Monsignor Brenes is replacing vicars, parish priests and curates who were rewarded by the cardinal for their loyalty as well as those he shaped in his image and political and ideological likeness with priests who are closer to the people and have more solidarity with the poor. They are more religious, pastoral priests, who have no interest in being political protagonists and are not linked to corruption.”
Everyone appreciates that Monsignor Brenes is different. It’s not his thing to go around making political analyses or offering opinions in support of any particular party or politician. He’s not interested in using the Cathedral pulpit for his own ends or in seeking out journalists. He leaves the more “committed” declarations to Monsignor Hombach.
“The problem,” we’re told, “is that Cardinal Obando isn’t accepting his retirement. Every since he left the post as archbishop he has been visiting urban and rural parishes that he never went to before, to keep his social base. He wants to show Rome that he’s indispensable in the country. Just like a caudillo, right? The only solution will be to give him a post in Rome. The worrying thing is that he’ll go without anybody holding him to account for how he left the archdiocese financially, without anybody clearing up how many and which properties that should be in the Church’s name are now in his.”
Monsignor Brenes doesn’t have the same force of power, money and influence, and that force is threatening him. But he’s on the move, slowly but very surely.
The Mejía Godoys: We offer another touch of art and of hope to close this year of uncertainties and make way for an even more uncertain one, which nonetheless is more promising thanks to the different Güe-güenses who are challenging power in diverse ways. It is a news item that complements the awarding of El Güe-güense, and thus also linked to national dignity: two contemporary icons of Nicaraguan identity, the brothers Carlos and Luis Enrique Mejía Godoy, were decorated with the Order of Rubén Darío, our country’s highest cultural distinction.
Another national pride
In a simple ceremony, held in their native town of Somoto on November 27, President Bolaños decorated the brothers “for their contribution to Nicaraguan music and culture.” For the past 40-plus years these two men have composed and performed over 300 songs, including “Nicaragua, Nicara-güita,” a veritable second national anthem. Most of their songs are well known and sung and loved by people everywhere, particularly the legions of “internationalists” who came to contribute their grain of sand to the revolution in the eighties. Many songs have been translated and the liberation theology hymns of the Misa Campesina are sung by Christian communities all over the world.
The Mejía Godoy brothers are indeed a national pride, just like El Güegüense. No one else has so universalized Nicaraguan music or presented us with so many dearly loved figures of popular culture through words and music. Nobody more than they, proud of being “from a small town, small like a sparrow, with half a century of dreams, hope and bravery,” gave the anti-Somoza insurrection and the Sandinista revolution such a novel seal of beauty, with their unforgettable songs about war and about peace. Sons of Sandino and the embodiment of true Sandinismo, they have achieved widespread and impassioned national consensus due to their passion for Nicaragua. Their music is now the nation’s heritage and remains very much alive in the collective memory of all who struggle for justice and sovereignty in Nicaragua and the rest of Latin America.
After accompanying the anti-Somoza insurrection and the Sandi-nista revolution with their often highly political songs, they distanced themselves publicly from the FSLN in the nineties, but have continued singing those songs and a continual spring of new ones in their Managua project, “Casa de los Mejía Godoy,” while Carlos produces a TV program, “El Clan de la Picardía,” aimed at conserving population culture. Carlos also composed the electoral campaign song for the Movement for the Rescue of Sandi-nismo, headed by Herty Lewites, debuting it at Lewites’ sizable rally in Masaya last March. In this year’s July 19 celebration of the anniversary of the revolution, centered around Daniel Ortega, not one of the Mejía Godoy brothers’ songs was heard—not the FSLN anthem, nor the hymn to FSLN founder Carlos Fonseca, nor even the anthem of the Literacy Crusade, despite this year being the 25th anniversary of that critically important campaign.
At the ceremony in their honor, the two brothers spoke in chorus, interchanging words and songs. Luis Enrique said: “Our parents taught us to love and defend Nicaragua. We don’t know how to do anything other than sing with honor and dignity. We’ve never been anchored in the past and have always fought to prevent our dreams being put in chains, our wings cut or our hope kidnapped.”
And Carlos added: “We’re like a clay brick; we absorb the rain, the wind, the song of the birds. The people themselves will tell us whether we’ve succeeded or not, but our commitment is to continue composing songs for Nicaragua. Life is doubly beautiful when one has a reason to live it and to struggle to build a dream.”
These are the words of Güegüenses who have infused their art with that same sense of humor and their fine, well-aimed and constant provocation. They provoke us to think critically, to share and to live with real feeling. Their joy and their dignity provoke us in the face of all power and authority.
One year moreWith this we close another year that has left the theater of democracy in tatters. And we begin 2006, hoping to build a better reality out what’s left of so many frustrated dreams. May the Güegüense inspire us and show us the way.