“Nicaragua Deserves a Decent Government”
An insider’s look at the MRS Alliance’s situation
after the unexpected death of its presidential candidate, Herty Lewites, and at some of the projects it is planning for government.
Dora María Téllez
We’re going into these elections with a seriously challenged electoral institutionality. Hundreds of thousands of Nicaraguans still don’t have a voter registration card; we have an electoral roll that hasn’t been cleaned in years and could lead to many irregularities; and the Supreme Electoral Council has located the polling sites in a way that evidently discriminates against the MRS Alliance. All this tells us we have a tough fight ahead to ensure that the elections on November 5 will be truly clean and fair.
Chronicle of a fraud foretoldAnd now we’ve just learned about yet another, very serious problem. It appears that the FSLN isn’t satisfied with the control it has over the Supreme Electoral Council. In his speech during the July 19 celebration, Daniel Ortega’s most important announcement, albeit implicit, was his willingness to commit electoral fraud. His angry rejection of international electoral observers gave us a clear signal of this. Some months ago, the international and national electoral observers were considered welcome in the FSLN because it was sure it would win and wanted the observers to certify a transparent victory. But the first clue to the contrary, even preceding Ortega on July 19, was when vice presidential candidate Jaime Morales Carazo referred to a “Machiavellian confabulation” against the FSLN, and both men rejected the presence of international observers, who they suggested were part of this conspiracy. Why this rejection if the observers don’t count votes, give out voter cards or pass out ballots, aren’t members of any polling place and are nothing more than observers? Why reject them if all they do is record, verify and do rapid counts?
I can see no reason for this rejection other than an indication of the FSLN’s desire to commit fraud. If it’s going to play clean, why fear being observed? I think it’s prepared to play dirty. The Carter Center and the OAS have been present in all of Nicaragua’s elections since 1984, yet this is the first time Daniel Ortega has ever said he doesn’t want them. The Supreme Electoral Council has been putting obstacles in the way of national observers as well. That’s why I think that, reading between the lines, Ortega’s most important message on July 19 was: we don’t have the votes to win, but we’re prepared to steal them.” He wanted to “vaccinate” people, denouncing the international observers beforehand as agents of “imperialism’s will.”
Another eventuality that has to be considered is the rumored deal that consists of Arnoldo Alemán letting Ortega win in exchange for his freedom after the elections, since Alemán already has a legislative bench guaranteed even if the PLC loses the presidency. If that’s true, we need to be really alert to how all this will play out on November 5 in the polling places and when the votes are being counted, because the pact between these two men isn’t over.
This is going to be a unique electoral race because four major political forces are participating. In the MRS Alliance we believe we can win both the presidency and a parliamentary majority, but we know it won’t be easy, that we’ll have to fight for every vote in both the presidential and legislative campaigns and then afterward in the vote count, which promises to be tense. With four strong groups competing in departments of the country that only have two assigned legislative seats, only the two strongest groups will win a seat, while the third and fourth will end up with nothing.
So the fight will be vote for vote and polling place by polling place, ensuring that no votes get “shaved off.” Because if the two parties to the pact annul just 10 presidential votes in each ballot box, that would be enough to swing the results in their favor. “Shaving” polling places could be the main fraud mechanism on November 5; it’s exactly what Andrés Manuel López Obrador is claiming they did to him in Mexico. The only way to stop that and other fraud mechanisms is with good civic preparation, well trained party monitors at the polling places and the presence of national and international observers.
The effect of Herty’s deathAlthough one might have thought that Herty Lewites’ death would favor Daniel Ortega, it didn’t. The FSLN didn’t recover the Sandinista voters it lost to Herty’s candidacy because they were already convinced that Ortega’s leadership style is no option. We in the MRS Alliance now have the challenge of hanging on to this vote and attracting the third of the population that according to some polls still hasn’t decided who to vote for. The youth vote predominates among those who decide at the last minute. Herty’s death was a huge loss to the Alliance in part because he had enormous influence among these independent and young voters.
Obviously Herty’s death was also a strong blow because he had been carving out his place as a candidate for a year and a half, and was very well known. He was very attractive to the grassroots population because of his charismatic style and his results as mayor. Our first question after his death was whether or not the votes for Herty would convert into a vote for our project. Was it only a personal vote “for that bald guy I like who seems really nice” or could it be something more?
Any doubts were quickly cleared up. From the first moment after Herty’s death, the vast majority of people who had decided to vote for him told us and continue telling us, “Our man left us, but don’t let up; we’re still with you.” That’s what Mundo Jarquín and Carlos Mejía Godoy have been hearing in their house-to-house canvassing everywhere they go; it’s what we’ve all being hearing. People keep telling us, “We’re going to stick with you; we trust in what you represent; we’re interested in the project.” We’ve seen that Herty succeeded in convincing people that we’re working for a project of change for Nicaragua, not just to get someone into the presidency. That’s one of his legacies, and it’s been very important in the annals of Nicaraguan politics. It makes us feel even more committed, because it tells us it was confidence in all of us, not just Herty, and that makes us feel the obligation and the ethical and political duty to continue taking this project forward.
It has certainly been a great setback to lose a personality like Herty, the Alliance’s great bond, its cement. After his death, everybody was betting that the Alliance would come unstuck before it could elect a new ticket. But we showed that amidst all the difficulties common to any political alliance in Nicaragua, we could choose new candidates quickly and opportunely. It was really an enormous challenge to have to choose new candidates so quickly, and only three months before the elections.
The new ticketThe Mundo Jarquín-Carlos Mejía Godoy ticket that replaced the Herty-Mundo one gives us the chance to take our message to the countryside, where we’re weaker. Carlos is super well-known and super loved in Nicaragua’s rural areas. He represents the Nicaraguan identity, particularly its grassroots identity. He’s been traveling the country with his television program “El Clan de la Picardía” for ten years now, presenting Nicaragua’s rural and peasant reality to the whole country. It has been a personal challenge to show what he calls “deep Nicaragua” to the rest of the country. And he’s done it. Carlos Mejía Godoy isn’t going to be some glad-handing Vice President who only goes to receptions to grab a drink and be the smiling public face of the presidency. He’s told us he wants to be a Vice President who’s present in the communities, guaranteeing that the government’s social programs are really working there. That’s his vocation. Who better than him to oversee the social programs and programs for the rural youth?
There’s an important message in our new ticket, an important symbol. Both candidates come from deep Nicaragua, from the Segovias: Mundo from Ocotal and Carlos from Somoto. And both come from areas of extreme poverty. Somoto, the capital of the department of Madriz, is one of the areas with the most poverty in Nicaragua, while Ocotal, the capital of Nueva Segovia, is a zone of small and medium landowners who are today completely abandoned.
Mundo Jarquín was born in Ocotal and has the sensitivity of a professional who has pulled himself up by his own bootstraps. He’s not a business owner or a landowner, but a professional whose principal capital is what he studied, working his way through school. And then in the university he struggled against the dictatorship until he was forced to leave the country, and had to finish his studies abroad. I think this personal trajectory is very important, because in the past 15 years Nicaragua has been governed by a geophagist like Arnoldo Alemán, who wanted to swallow the entire country, and by big business representatives only interested in economic liberalization, in establishing privileges and rules that favor big capital. With Mundo Jarquín the country has the chance to be governed by a professional with great human qualities, someone truly committed to dealing with the big problems facing the poor, workers and peasants, small and medium producers, small and medium business people, and the youth. Nicaragua has so many problems it needs to be governed with quality, capacity and sensitivity. To deal with its problems, Nicaragua also needs to recover its identity, with everything that implies. And that’s exactly what Mundo Jarquín and Carlos Mejía Godoy guarantee us.
We’re confident we can convince the still undecided electorate, especially young voters, that we offer the best option for Nicaragua, one that isn’t demagogic, isn’t for the wealthy and big capital and isn’t an option of the pact. It’s an option determined to liquidate the pact—because if we don’t, the pact will liquidate all of us—and to create the right conditions for the country to take off economically and create employment.
Youth and jobsHerty invited Mundo to run for Vice President with the idea that he would work on job creation programs. This will still be one of his major priorities as President, because unemployment is our main problem. Nicaraguans are leaving for Costa Rica and the United States because there are no opportunities here. And that migration is disarticulating the Nicaraguan family and causing problems among a youth raised by grandparents, or no one at all, and now flocking to the gangs. Even though the father might be working in the United States and the mother in Costa Rica and both send remittances, their money comes at a very high price: social decomposition and family disarticulation, with everything that implies for our future.
Youth unemployment is a key problem to which we want to provide answers. Thousands of young men and women leave the universities every year and can’t find work. Many want ads say: “Young business administrator needed with five years of experience.” But that’s absurd: you can’t have someone who’s both young and experienced. They also want someone with a good appearance, and who speaks English. But the universities aren’t preparing students to be bilingual. And those over 40 years old, who do have experience, can’t get jobs either. We can’t afford the luxury of specializing in a given field any more in Nicaragua, because it’s useless to us. So we end up being jacks or jills of all trades, freelance workers doing whatever comes our way each day.
Jobs and the economyCreating jobs has to do with reactivating the country’s economy. In the MRS Alliance we want major investments, but the priority reactivation in Nicaragua has to go to the small and medium businesses and producers who can’t get credits or have no collateral to apply for them, who have no property security because they haven’t been given their deeds. Supporting small and medium producers and businesses, many of which are family operations, is one of the best ways to create jobs because they are the source of most jobs in Nicaragua. We’re going to prioritize them. We also have to create jobs by stimulating housing construction, providing houses to those who don’t have one. The houses being built today are mainly for the upper middle class. There are no housing solutions for the grassroots sectors.
If we don’t create jobs in this country, applying all our efforts to this end not as campaign promises but as government work, we’re finished as a country. Five or ten more free trade zones aren’t going to solve the problem. We have to preside over the economic take-off of small and medium producers and businesses en masse, deploying all their potential, their capacities and possibilities. That will in turn create jobs and improve personal and community living standards.
Our program states that we’re interested in promoting large, medium and small investments, but with clear ground rules and quality employment, because what we’ve been getting are poorly paid jobs with limited specialization such as those in the textile sweat shops for re-export known as maquilas. That doesn’t mean, however, that we can do without the maquila zones. It’s very irresponsible for one of the candidates to go around saying we don’t need their investments because when those assembly plants pack up and go to some other country, where are the 40,000 people they currently employ going to find work?
Let me give you just one example of the many things we’re going to do, things that could be done now but aren’t being done. It’s proven that reforestation programs generate the most jobs, but who’s financing reforestation in Nicaragua? When I was in Finland, they told me, “It takes us 30 years for these pine forests to mature and you only need 15. We live off this, so why can’t you?” And they showed me these enormous pine forests that had provided a livelihood to four generations and will continue doing so for future generations. Why can’t we do something like that? But who has ever given financing in Nicaragua to plant forests?
We’re working up a program of incentives for businesses that hire young people, and another program to strengthen enterprising youths who have finished their career and want to start their own business or establish themselves as professionals, because nowadays a dental graduate doesn’t even have enough money to buy the chair. Who finances dentist’s chairs these days? The only financing available is to buy cars and other consumer goods. In our program we’re banking on providing young people the financial, technical and managerial capacity to find work and generate other jobs.
The right kind of schoolingOur first objective, then, is for young people to leave school with skills and find work. Thousands of students graduate each year in Nicaragua, but they don’t know how to do anything because they don’t get any labor skills. There’s an urgent need for high school graduates who aren’t going to continue studying in a public or private university to have some kind of practical training. The government must provide students the basic means to obtain qualifications. But there isn’t even one technical institute in each district of Managua, or in each department of the country. It’s urgent to create the capacity to give our high school graduates technical qualifications, to provide technical education on a massive scale. Many families spend a lot of money putting their kids through high school, but they leave without knowing any trade. These parents could invest their money better by giving their children a mid-level technical education so they can either get a job or keep on studying whether or not they get their high school degree. We have to make educational reforms so that all our high school graduates leave school with some skill or trade.
The MRS Alliance is also thinking about tourism and hotel schools to train many young people as waiters, chefs and tour guides, and prepare them with basic and technical English so they can communicate with the tourists, all so we can launch ourselves as a tourist country. English is one of the languages of the Caribbean coast, but the country is letting that potential go to waste.
We’re also proposing to take up the challenge of our university education system. Every year thousands of university law graduates have trouble even getting a notary title, and when they finally start working the only job they can find is replacing thousands of birth certificates! Five years studying and thousands of dollars invested for that? Our universities crank out professionals who are of no use to the market when the country really needs professionals that the universities aren’t producing. We have to seriously reform the universities so that they produce highly skilled professionals that can find work. It’s painful to say, but our professionals are very low quality and so are the universities: no libraries, no adequate laboratories, no appropriate professional internships, no discipline. In short, there are serious problems of quality in our university teaching.
And on top of all this, it’s not good enough to have a bachelor’s degree in today’s world. Everybody is asking for job candidates with a master’s degree. So we have to make the leap from illiteracy to masters, because we still have a high level of illiteracy in the country. Approximately one in every four Nicaraguans is illiterate, while a large part of the rural youth ends up with only a first, second or at best third grade education, which amounts to functional illiteracy. A sixth grade education at least allows rural people to improve their production and cultivation techniques, but a young man or woman from the countryside with only a third grade education might as well throw in the towel.
Our greatest challenge will be Our major dilemma, our great challenge, however, will be simply to govern, working out what we will and won’t be able to do. The great challenge of the Latin American Left isn’t how to be in the opposition, but how to govern. What can a government do in Nicaragua in a term of only five years? If that government has a parliamentary majority—and we expect to have one—it can do more and make faster progress. If not, everything will be slower and more difficult.
simply to govern, to prioritize
And what will we have to prioritize? A third of our population has problems feeding itself every day of its life, going without at least one and sometimes two meals a day. Hunger is an urgent problem in Nicaragua. It would really be something if a government were to achieve just three things here—eliminate illiteracy, reduce hunger to its minimum expression and give agriculture a real boost. We’re in such a seriously deteriorated state that this would be a gigantic step forward. And if on top of that it were able to resolve the problem of all the pending property titles it would be a light-year leap! And if we were also able to maintain investment flows and a dynamic economy, we’d have made a revolution!
Can we break relations with the International Monetary Fund? No, but we can negotiate with it from a position of sovereignty, defending grassroots interests. Can we demand more from this country’s wealthy class? You bet we can, and we will. As we say in our program: those who don’t pay their taxes are going to pay, and those who earn more are going to pay more, because we’re going to do away with exonerations and exemptions for those who earn more.
The essence of the neoliberalism we’re suffering, the model by which President Bolaños is governing, is to give all the privileges to big capital whatever the cost to the rest. We put in the cheap labor, the highways, the cheap electricity, the tax exemptions and they make the money. We believe that we have to give incentives to attract investment, but from there to governing for big capital is a huge leap. We also believe it isn’t enough just to ensure that big capital pays the taxes they don’t pay now, because we can be successful in collecting taxes and still fail in the fight against hunger. We can have a government that taxes big capital, but doesn’t care that people are hungry, is indifferent to illiteracy or lets the public health system continue being dismantled, privatizing it by default.
I repeat: if our government can end hunger, illiteracy and the stagnation of agriculture, the countryside and the peasantry, we will have taken an enormous step forward. Enormous. And if we can also put a halt to the pact and counteract corruption to the max, putting public officials to work, it would be absolutely gigantic.
Today we have National Assembly representatives who earn a base salary of $5,000 a month, get 200 gallons of gas or diesel a month, have health and life insurance and receive 400,000 córdobas a year for their pork barrel projects. And on top of all that they have parliamentary immunity, literally a “license to kill.” If we can recover the decorum of public office, we will be taking an absolutely transcendental step for Nicaragua.
Neoliberalism is corrupting societyNeoliberalism hasn’t just affected us economically. It has been corrupting society. Herty was shocked by the traffic in young and teenage girls to prostitute them in other countries. And I’m freaked out by the slot machines in the house-front shops in every neighborhood and peasant community in this country, not to mention the fancy casinos everywhere you look in Managua.
What kind of generation of Nicaraguans are we raising in such a climate? Easy money Nicaraguans? Easy money means drug dealing, economic crime, organized crime and being always on the lookout to swindle someone. Everywhere we see boys and girls who skip school and spend all day playing these machines.
Why haven’t the FSLN and PLC legislative benches approved the Casino Law to regulate them? Might some of their members have interests in some casino? And why haven’t they been able to pass a short, specific law whose first article prohibits slot machines outside of casinos and whose second article establishes that the law will go into effect immediately?
The Caribbean coast is seriously affected by drug trafficking and use, which is growing apace, but the government hasn’t financed a single rehabilitation center there. The Police Department has no budget to go after drug trafficking. And the community leaders and even pastors feel very vulnerable because the government has totally ignored the coast. A government surely can resolve these things. It can and it must..
Another problem our government aspires to defeat is political patronage and political revenge. We want what Herty always argued for: “a government for all.” In Nicaragua, we’re still waiting to see a public administration that doesn’t recognize patronage or revenge or parties when it comes to public service and public benefits. Nicaragua deserves such a government. It deserves a decent government.
Dora María Téllez is president of the Sandinista Renovation Movement (MRS), which is now part of the MRS Alliance, one of the five options on the November ballots. She is also a National Assembly candidate on the MRS Alliance’s national slate.